Bursitis of the elbow: trauma or not, it sure hurts!

Anatomy of the elbow

The elbow is a joint where 3 bones connect: the humerus (upper arm), and the radius and the ulna (forearm). The biceps are primarily responsible for folding the elbow, while the triceps allow it to extend.There are also ligaments that stabilize the joint, nerves that carry electrical current, and a bursa that lubricates the joint. This lubrication protects the tendons and cartilage. The olecranon bursa is located at the tip of the elbow, and has very little protection (muscles or fat). This means that it is highly susceptible to injury and irritation.

Bursitis 101

As we described in our column on hip bursitis, when a bursa is inflamed or infected, it releases the lubricating liquid it contains, spreading inflammatory substances in the process. This leads to the swelling, pain and ankylosis chracteristic of bursitis.

Specific risk factors for the elbow

There are several potential causes for this condition. It can develop as the result of trauma (either from compression or stretching) or infection. Here are the key risk factors:

In short, any unusual or repetitive stress over a long period of time can cause a bursa to become inflamed.

How is it diagnosed?

The main symptoms are:


The first step is to reduce inflammation with an anti-inflammatory medication, ice and rest. Your physiotherapist may also use other treatments:

If there are signs of infection, such as fever, your doctor or pharmacist can help you.

In conclusion, bursitis of the elbow isn’t something to ignore. It needs to be treated promptly and appropriately. A poorly healed bursitis can cause long-term muscle atrophy and stiffness. It can also lead to repeated bursitis flare-ups, or even the development of elbow tendinitis.