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Elbow (Olecranon) Bursitis

The olecranon bursa is the name of the fluid-filled sac that lies between the tip of the elbow and loose skin. Bursitis is the condition that results if the olecranon bursa becomes inflamed or infected. Bursitis causes pain, fluid buildup, and in some cases restriction of motion.

What is olecranon bursitis?

Bursitis is an inflammation of small sacs of fluid (bursae) that help joints move smoothly. Olecranon bursitis, which affects the olecranon bursa at the back of the elbow, is sometimes called Popeye elbow. This is because the bump that develops at the back of the elbow looks like the cartoon character Popeye’s elbow.

There are three general causes of olecranon bursitis:

  • Trauma: A hard blow to the tip of the elbow can cause the bursa to produce excess fluid and swell.
  • Prolonged pressure: Leaning on the tip of the elbow for long periods of time on hard surfaces, such as a tabletop, may cause the bursa to swell. Typically, this type of bursitis develops over several months.
  • Infection: If an injury at the tip of the elbow breaks the skin, such as an insect bite, scrape, or puncture wound, bacteria may get inside the bursa sac and cause an infection. The infected bursa produces fluid, redness, swelling, and pain.

Medical conditions: Certain conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis and gout, are associated with elbow bursitis.

Symptoms of olecranon bursitis may include:

  • Pain
  • Swelling- One lump may be felt in the back of the affected elbow. The swelling or lump is caused by increased fluid within the bursa and is tender with movement or when touched.
  • Redness, red streaking, warmth, fever, and swollen lymph nodes in the armpit caused by infection.

Your doctor can likely diagnose olecranon bursitis from a medical history and physical exam. If the swelling is the result of an injury, X-rays may be necessary to determine whether the elbow is fractured.

How is olecranon bursitis treated?

Treatment for sudden (acute) bursitis may include drainage of excess fluid in the sac with a needle, followed by injections of medicines into the sac to decrease inflammation and promote healing.

Treatment for ongoing (chronic) bursitis focuses on teaching you to avoid leaning on your elbows, protecting your elbows during sports activities with elbow pads, and using anti-inflammatory medicines. Antibiotic medicines may be needed to treat infection, and surgery may be needed to drain or remove the bursa.

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