What could cause elbow swelling?

Anthony L. Komaroff, MD
Internal Medicine
There are a number of causes of elbow swelling. Before we get to them, however, it's important to make a distinction between elbow joint swelling (arthritis) and elbow bursa swelling (bursitis). The causes are different.

Olecranon bursitis is an inflammation of the bursa (sac). This is found at the tip of the elbow where the skin is a bit rough and loose. If you place your elbows on a table, you're leaning on your olecranon bursae.

When the bursa is swollen, it looks a bit like an egg hanging off the back of your elbow. Joint motion is usually not severely limited, other than by tightness when the elbow is fully bent. This is due to the stretching of the bursa.

Among the most common causes of olecranon bursitis are:
  • Trauma. Swelling is due to blood; there may be little pain
  • Infection. Swelling is due to inflammation triggered by bacteria; pain is usually significant
  • Gout. Swelling is due to painful inflammation that's triggered by uric acid crystals
On the other hand, if there is swelling all around the elbow, along with warmth and loss of motion (or painful motion), you probably have arthritis.

Among the most common causes of elbow arthritis are:
  • Rheumatoid arthritis. This autoimmune condition typically causes inflammation of multiple joints
  • Osteoarthritis (also called degenerative arthritis). When it affects the elbow, it's often due to prior injury
  • Gout or pseudogout. The inflammation is triggered by uric acid or calcium crystals in the joint
Diagnosing the cause of elbow swelling (or near elbow swelling) requires a careful examination. In many cases some fluid needs to be removed for testing.

See your doctor. Most of the time, the cause can be readily identified and treated.
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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.