Elbow bursitis

Back to Patient education: elbow

What is elbow bursitis?

Elbow bursitis is an inflammation the bursa—the thin, slippery sac that cushions and lubricates the boney tip of the elbow. Elbow bursitis is the most common type of bursitis. It typically results from injury or overuse, such as excessive training or athletic competition. In many cases, an obvious lump forms when too much fluid collects under the skin.

What causes elbow bursitis?

Common causes of elbow bursitis include:

  • A direct blow to, or fall onto, the elbow
  • Repeatedly resting weight on the elbow
  • Repetitive motion at work or in athletics
  • Inflammation
  • Infection from an insect bite, scrape or wound

What are the symptoms?

The most common symptoms include pain around the back of the elbow that worsens when you bend your arm, swelling and tenderness directly over the tip of the elbow, and limited range of motion. If the bursa is infected, the skin may be warm and red and you may have a fever. Seek medical help promptly if you think you have an infection within the bursa.

How is elbow bursitis diagnosed?

Because many conditions cause elbow pain, it’s important to consult a qualified physician for an accurate diagnosis. In addition to a complete medical history, your doctor may recommend an X-ray to look for a foreign body or bone spur, or rule out a fracture.

What is the treatment?

Most cases of elbow bursitis respond well to non-surgical treatment. It’s important to rest your elbow and avoid putting pressure on it. Other therapies include over-the-counter pain medications, corticosteroid injections, elbow pads and physical therapy. If the bursa remains swollen, your doctor may aspirate it by inserting a needle and draining the fluid. This procedure is usually performed in the office. You’ll need to take antibiotics for a few days afterwards.

If the bursitis does not resolve with conservative management, surgery may be necessary to remove the inflamed bursa and resolve the pain. In this procedure, the surgeon makes an incision over the tip of the elbow and removes the thickened bursa sac. Because the bursa is outside the elbow joint, the joint itself is not impacted. Afterwards, you may need to wear a splint for a few days. Most people return to full function within three to four weeks, although they continue to pad or protect their elbows to prevent re-injury.