Sports Medicine SelfCareNavigator:
Elbow (Olecranon) Bursitis

Condition/Symptoms for
Elbow (Olecranon) Bursitis

Bursae are fluid-filled sacs that serve to reduce friction between tissues that cross each other, such as where muscles and tendons slide across bone.  When a bursa becomes inflamed, irritated or swollen it is called bursitis.  Elbow (olecranon) bursitis happens when the bursa over the tip or back of your elbow becomes inflamed, irritated and/or swollen (Figure 1).  It’s sometimes referred to as “student’s elbow” because it commonly occurs in people who spend hours leaning on the point of an elbow while studying.

Elbow Bursitis Illustration

  • Unless the bursa is infected, olecranon bursitis usually gets better over a few weeks with little treatment. Usually, your body will slowly reabsorb the excess fluid from the bursa.
  • Sometimes, olecranon bursitis can be chronic and/or recurrent, especially if you have scarring or have had a lot of bleeding in the bursa.

Causes

Olecranon bursitis can result from:

  • a direct blow to the back of the elbow
  • doing something that puts prolonged or repeated pressure on the tip or back of your elbow, such as leaning on your elbow
  • infection from a puncture wound or from overlying infected skin
  • inflammation from a disease such as gout or rheumatoid arthritis.

Symptoms And Signs

  • There will be swelling over the tip or back of your elbow.
  • You will usually have pain where your elbow is swollen but sometimes there is swelling without pain.
  • There may be mild warmth and redness over the swollen area.
  • You may have problems bending or flexing your elbow because the skin over the back of the elbow hurts and/or feels tight.
  • It will usually hurt if you lean on or bump the tip of your elbow.
  • Sometimes, you may feel fine grinding or notice a gristle-like texture when you press on the bursa tissue with your opposite hand.
  • If you have an infected bursa, there usually will be severe pain and redness, and may also have a fever or feel tired and achy like you have the flu.

Last reviewed: October 2007
Last revised: October 2007

CU Dept of Obstetrics and Gynecology LogoFavorably reviewed by The American Medical Society for Sports Medicine.

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