What is elbow bursitis?

Olecranon bursitis is inflammation (swelling) on the back of the elbow. The bursa is a fluid filled sac that serves to protect bony surfaces of the body. If the bursa becomes irritated it will swell, causing pain. Olecranon bursitis is usually caused by repeatedly leaning on or putting excessive pressure on the elbow (also known as student's elbow). If the swelling becomes severe enough, it may need to be drained by a doctor.

Dr. Rachel S. Rohde, MD
Orthopedic Surgeon

Elbow bursitis also is called olecranon bursitis. The olecranon is the tip of the elbow, and the olecranon bursa is a sac between the tip of the elbow bone and the overlying skin; it allows skin to move well over the bone. Olecranon “bursitis” is inflammation of the bursa. This can result from a direct blow (trauma) to the tip of the elbow or from leaning on the tip of the elbow for long periods of time. Medical conditions like gout and rheumatoid arthritis can be associated with olecranon bursitis. An infection also can result if the skin is punctured in that area. 

In general, the first symptom is swelling at the tip of the elbow. Considerable swelling can occur even without pain. Motion of the elbow usually is normal unless there is a significant amount of swelling. Redness or warmth of the skin, tenderness of the bursa, or drainage (especially of pus) are warning signs of infection; if any of these are present, evaluation by a doctor as soon as possible is recommended.

To understand what olecranon bursitis is we need to know what a bursa is. Bursae are ingenious devices we have to reduce friction between moving parts in our body. These areas are most commonly between bone and skin or bone and tendons. Think of a bursa as a closed zip-lock sandwich bag with no air in it. Next, add a few drops of oil. Now you have two flat, thin layers that can easily slide over one another with minimal friction. The body’s lubricant is called synovial fluid.

Bursitis is a generic term for inflammation of the bursa. This can be due to infection, trauma, inflammatory diseases, like rheumatoid arthritis, or for unknown reasons. Usually, there is pain with use of the associated moving parts. The olecranon bursa is on the point of the elbow and allows us to place our elbow on a desk and move it about an inch in each direction without pain. With inflammation the bursa sac fills with fluid and it can be painful to move the elbow or tender to pressure. Sometimes the only symptom is a swollen, balloon-like mass on the point of the elbow.

Initial treatment is to determine if infection or an inflammatory disease is the cause. Then these conditions are treated accordingly. Other treatments may include rest, ice, compression (ACE bandage or compression sleeve), anti-inflammatory medications, physical therapy, draining the bursa, or steroid injection. Surgery is a relatively rare last resort.

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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.