Olecranon bursitis, also known as elbow bursitis, is one of the most common types of the condition and often requires orthopedic consultation. Bursae are small, thin, slippery fluid-filled sacs that aid smooth joint movement by providing a cushion between soft tissue and bone. The olecranon bursa, located behind the elbow between the pointy olecranon bone and the loose skin covering the area, is normally flat. When it is irritated or inflamed, fluid accumulates and bursitis develops.
Swelling is typical for many conditions, but with elbow bursitis, the increase in fluid often causes a lump that is nicknamed a Popeye elbow because it looks like the elbow of the cartoon character. Another symptom is pain, especially with movement or when pressure is applied to the elbow. There may be redness or red streaking, warm skin, and fever. If there is an infection, the lymph nodes of the armpit may swell.
Trauma is one of the main causes of elbow bursitis. When the area takes a hard hit, it leads to excess fluid production and swelling. If that trauma causes a break in the elbow skin, it can lead to infection of the bursa, which can also cause bursitis. Prolonged pressure, such as leaning on hard surfaces, can lead to bursitis. Certain occupations make people vulnerable to this cause, including plumbers, HVAC technicians, and others who typically crawl in tight spaces for the work. Elbow bursitis is sometimes caused by other medical conditions, including gout and rheumatoid arthritis.
Nonsurgical treatment options include icing the affected area, modifying activity, and using elbow pads and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medicines. Some patients may get corticosteroid injections.
Olecranon bursitis may become septic. These cases may require antibiotics. An orthopedic surgeon may order an x-ray to check for bone spurs or foreign bodies. Patients with repeated cases of elbow bursitis tend to have bone spurs on the tip of the elbow bone. The doctor may also collect a bursa fluid sample to determine if infection or gout are involved.
When infection is present and non-surgical options don’t work, surgery to remove the entire bursa might be recommended. The bursa grows back over several months and should function normally. Even when there is no infection, surgery to remove the bursa may still be recommended. After surgery, your orthopedist may recommend exercises to improve range of motion, and you may need to wear protective padding for a few months so the bursa is not reinjured.