Olecranon Bursitis


Elbow bursitis, also known as olecranon bursitis, is a condition characterized by inflammation of the bursa located at the tip of the elbow overlying the olecranon process on the lateral side. This bursa, known as the olecranon bursa, is a small fluid-filled sac that normally acts as a cushion to reduce friction between the bony point of the elbow and the soft tissues of the skin and muscles.

Olecranon bursitis, much different from golfer’s elbow, occurs when this bursa becomes irritated and inflamed, resulting in pain, swelling, redness and tenderness over the back of the elbow, affecting the tendon. Excess fluid accumulation in the olecranon bursa causes it to swell up like a rubber ball on the elbow. Olecranon bursitis can be caused by trauma, overuse, arthritis, infection or other medical conditions.

Repeated direct blows or pressure on the elbow are common triggers. The inflammation impedes normal elbow movement and can be quite painful until properly treated. Prompt diagnosis and treatment of olecranon bursitis is important to alleviate symptoms and restore full elbow function.

Olecranon Bursitis: Signs and Symptoms of Elbow Bursitis (Inflamed Bursa)

Olecranon Bursitis: Signs and Symptoms of Elbow Bursitis (Inflamed Bursa)
Photo Credit: Orthoinfo

The main symptoms of olecranon bursitis include:

  • Pain and swelling at the tip of the elbow may appear gradually or suddenly.
  • Tenderness when pressing on the inflamed bursa.
  • Redness and warmth – The skin over the affected bursa can redden and feel warm from inflammation.
  • Lumpy swelling – The swollen bursa may create a visible lump resembling a rubber ball or goose egg on the elbow.
  • Drainage – The inflamed bursa may rupture and drain fluid. This releases pressure but increases infection risk.
  • Stiffness and restricted elbow motion – Elbow flexion and extension are inhibited.
  • Fever (with infection) – An infected bursa can lead to fever and flu.

Symptoms often worsen with leaning on the elbow or movements that press on the inflamed bursa. Pain may flare at night, disrupting sleep.

What Causes Olecranon Bursitis?

There are several potential causes of olecranon bursitis:

  • Direct trauma – Repeated elbow bumps or hits can damage the bursa. Common in sports like wrestling or football.
  • Constant pressure – Resting the elbows on hard surfaces compresses the bursa over time. Common in professions requiring leaning.
  • Infection – Septic bursitis occurs when bacteria enter the bursa, often through open wounds. More common in those with weak immune systems.
  • Arthritis – Inflammatory forms like rheumatoid arthritis increase irritation and swelling of elbow bursae.
  • Gout – Elbow bursitis may result from uric acid crystals depositing around the bursa in those with gout.
  • Other medical conditions – Diabetes, thyroid disorders, and kidney failure increase bursitis risk.

Any condition causing inflammation, irritation or added pressure on the elbow bursa can ultimately trigger painful swelling and olecranon bursitis. Prompt treatment helps reduce complications.

Risk Factors for Developing Olecranon Bursitis

Risk Factors for Developing Olecranon Bursitis
Photo Credit:
bignai, Freepik

Factors that raise the risk of olecranon bursitis include:

  • Occupations requiring frequent leaning on elbows – mining, plumbing, construction, manufacturing, mechanics
  • Sports with repetitive elbow contact – wrestling, football, hockey, baseball, gymnastics
  • Pre-existing elbow arthritis – Rheumatoid arthritis, gout, osteoarthritis
  • Previous elbow trauma – Fractures, contusions, surgery
  • Weakened immune system – Diabetes, chronic kidney disease, HIV/AIDS, cancer
  • Older age – The bursa loses elasticity over time. Most common after age 40.
  • Being male – Men are affected 3-4 times more than women due to occupational/sport risks.

Protecting elbows from overuse and trauma reduces the chances of developing this painful condition. Early diagnosis prevents complications like rupture or infection.

Diagnosing Olecranon Bursitis

Olecranon bursitis diagnosis involves:

  • Medical history – Symptoms, occupation, sports participation, arthritis risk factors
  • Physical exam – Checking the elbow for swelling, redness, warmth and range of motion
  • Testing fluid (if drained) – Fluid analysis indicates infection if present
  • Imaging – X-rays or MRI check for bone spurs, calcium deposits, arthritis
  • Blood tests – Help rule out gout, rheumatoid arthritis and other conditions

Distinguishing between non-infectious irritation and septic bursitis is important, as treatment approaches differ. Report any elbow swelling, pain, or fever to your doctor for proper diagnosis.

Treatments for Olecranon Bursitis

Most cases of olecranon bursitis improve with nonsurgical treatment:

Resting the Elbow

Avoiding pressure and trauma to the inflamed bursa helps reduce irritation. Use elbow pads for protection.


  • NSAIDs (ibuprofen, naproxen) reduce inflammation and pain
  • Antibiotics treat infection for septic bursitis
  • Corticosteroid injection relieves inflammation in persistent cases

Draining the Bursa

Aspiration drains excess fluid using a needle, providing relief.


Wrapping the elbow helps minimize swelling and provides stability.

Physical Therapy

Stretching, strengthening exercises improve mobility once pain decreases.


Removing the irritated bursa if conservative treatment fails.

Seeking treatment early optimizes recovery time. Most patients improve with nonsurgical methods. Call your doctor if symptoms worsen or persist beyond 1-2 weeks.

Lifestyle Measures for Recovery

Olecranon Bursitis: Lifestyle Measures for Recovery
Photo Credit: Stockking, Freepik

  • Allow the elbow time to rest and avoid leaning or bumping it. Use padding.
  • Apply ice packs for 15 minutes several times per day to control swelling.
  • Keep the elbow elevated above heart level as much as possible.
  • Take over-the-counter NSAIDs for pain and inflammation.
  • Do gentle exercises once swelling resolves to regain full motion.
  • Modify equipment or activities causing repeated elbow contact.
  • See a doctor promptly if you develop elbow redness, fever or drainage.

With proper treatment, most cases of olecranon bursitis heal entirely within a few weeks. Seek prompt medical care for optimal recovery.

Potential Complications of Olecranon Bursitis

If left untreated, olecranon bursitis can lead to:

  • Chronic elbow pain and recurrent swelling episodes
  • Elbow joint stiffness or frozen elbow from poor rehabilitation
  • Septic bursitis due to infection of the inflamed bursa
  • Bursal rupture causing drainage and increasing infection risk
  • Bone erosion under the inflamed bursa
  • Disability performing occupational or sports activities
  • Hospitalization for IV antibiotics if a severe infection develops

Prompt diagnosis and appropriate rest and treatment helps avoid these potential olecranon bursitis complications.

Long-Term Outlook and Recovery

Most cases of olecranon bursitis resolve well if treated early with conservative measures. Full recovery takes around 2-3 months for the inflamed bursa to heal completely and symptoms to disappear. Recurrence is common if elbow irritation continues, especially due to occupational overuse. Preventive measures include:

  • Avoiding repetitive elbow pressure and trauma
  • Using elbow pads and alternating elbow use
  • Treating underlying medical conditions causing inflammation
  • Rehabilitation exercises to build elbow strength
  • Promptly treating any new elbow swelling
  • Learning techniques to protect the elbow at work

People fully recover from olecranon bursitis with proper rest, treatment, and prevention habits. Report any recurring elbow pain or swelling to your doctor to check for infection or other complications requiring further treatment.

Emerging Treatments for Chronic Olecranon Bursitis

Emerging Treatments for Chronic Olecranon Bursitis
Photo Credit: arthritis-health

For those with persistent, recurrent or complex cases of olecranon bursitis not responsive to conventional treatments, emerging therapies include:

  • Prolotherapy – Injecting irritant solutions to stimulate healing
  • Platelet-rich plasma (PRP) – Injecting concentrated platelets to spur tissue repair
  • Hyaluronic acid injections – Help lubricate and cushion the irritated bursa
  • Autologous blood injection – Injecting own blood to initiate healing
  • Stem cell therapy – Showing promise for regeneration but still being studied

Future research aims to find new ways to resolve stubborn cases of elbow bursitis that fail typical treatments. Consulting a sports medicine specialist is advised for recalcitrant cases.

In most people, olecranon bursitis can be effectively treated with rest, elbow protection, medications, drainage, and rehabilitation exercises. Seeking prompt medical care provides the best chance for the fastest recovery and avoiding complications like rupture or infection of the inflamed bursa. Awareness of elbow safety at work and in sports helps prevent this painful condition.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) About Olecranon Bursitis

How do you treat olecranon bursitis?

Olecranon bursitis is treated with rest, icing, NSAIDs, aspiration of fluid, padding for protection, antibiotics for infection, and physical therapy to strengthen and stretch the elbow.

Does olecranon bursitis go away?

Yes, with proper treatment such as rest, anti-inflammatory medications, draining excess fluid, and elbow padding, most cases of olecranon bursitis resolve within 2-3 months.

What is the cause of olecranon bursitis?

Often seen in plumbers, the most common causes are repetitive trauma like leaning on the elbow, direct blows to the elbow, arthritis, and sometimes infection. Less commonly, medical conditions like gout or diabetes can contribute.

What is the first line treatment for olecranon bursitis?

The first line treatment is resting and protecting the elbow from further irritation and impact, icing to reduce swelling, NSAID medications, and draining excess fluid if present.