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Olecranon Bursitis: Definition & Treatment

Instructor: Danielle Haak

Danielle has a PhD in Natural Resource Sciences and a MSc in Biological Sciences

Olecranon bursitis is a condition that affects the tip of the elbow and can make it look like there's a golf ball sticking out of it. Read this lesson to learn how this develops, what causes it, and how it is treated.

Elbow Anatomy and Definitions

Before we jump into this lesson, let's take a look at a few pieces of the overall puzzle. First, the olecranon is the pointy bone that's located at the tip of your elbow. Between the olecranon and the skin is a small pouch of fluid called a bursa. The bursa provides a cushion for the elbow and skin to move past each other easily and usually only contains a small amount of fluid. However, the bursa can become irritated, infected, or inflamed, which makes it fill with more fluid until it swells. This swelling is called olecranon bursitis.

When the bursa swells, it causes a knobby bump on the end of the elbow.
olecranon bursitis

Causes of Olecranon Bursitis

So what causes the bursa to become irritated or inflamed? The most common cause is trauma, like hitting the elbow on something. It can also develop slowly over time if you repeatedly lean your elbows on hard surfaces. In fact, sometimes the condition is called 'student's elbow' or 'plumber's elbow' because these people have a higher incidence of olecranon bursitis.

It may also be caused by a broken bone, bone spur, or calcium deposit on the elbow or an infection caused by a cut or bite. Some medical conditions like gout, rheumatoid arthritis, and kidney failure also increase the likelihood of developing olecranon bursitis. And, many cases simply have no identified cause.

Symptoms of Olecranon Bursitis

Because the bursa fills with extra fluid, swelling is the most prominent symptom of this condition. This swelling may appear suddenly, like after a high-impact trauma, or gradually over time. Typically, the swelling doesn't cause any pain or hinder elbow movement.

If the bursa becomes infected, it usually causes pain and tenderness, feelings of warmth, and redness in the area. It can also cause a fever as your body fights the infection. An infected bursa that swells too much can eventually restrict elbow movement, and the infection can spread to other parts of the arm or enter the bloodstream. If the bursa gets too big, it might burst through the skin and drain fluid and pus (gross, but it's science).

Treating Olecranon Bursitis

If the bursa doesn't become infected, there usually isn't any treatment needed. To reduce symptoms, you should avoid any further aggravation of the area; wearing bandages or elbow pads might help. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) might help alleviate pain and inflammation. Avoid activities that require you to lean on the elbows.

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