Elbow bursitis in inflammation in the olecranon bursa — the fluid-filled sac that protects and cushions your elbow joint. It’s usually caused by overuse from your job or activities like sports. You’ll probably only need at-home treatments to help your bursa heal. Most people recover in three to six weeks.
Elbow bursitis is painful swelling around your elbow joint. Specifically, it’s inflammation in the olecranon bursa — the fluid-filled sac that surrounds and protects your elbow.
All the big joints in your body are surrounded by a bursa. They act as cushions and shock absorbers between your bones and your muscles, tendons or skin. Bursitis happens when a bursa gets irritated by overuse, damaged from trauma or during an infection.
The pain from an inflamed bursa may be sudden or build up over time.
Elbow bursitis and tennis elbow (lateral epicondylitis) both cause pain in your elbow. They can both also be caused by overuse. Bursitis is inflammation in the bursa around your elbow. Tennis elbow happens when the tendons in your elbows are inflamed or torn.
Cellulitis is a non-contagious bacterial infection. It causes swelling in your skin and deeper tissues around the infected part of your body. Both bursitis and cellulitis cause swelling, but bursitis isn’t an infection.
Gout is a painful form of arthritis caused by a buildup of uric acid in your body. It causes pain and swelling like bursitis, but it usually affects your big toes. Gout’s symptoms are caused when sharp uric acid crystals collect in your joints. The pain and swelling from bursitis are caused by inflammation in your fluid-filled olecranon bursa.
Gout — and other types of arthritis — can be a cause of bursitis.
No matter what’s causing pain or swelling, talk to your healthcare provider if you notice any new symptoms in or around your elbow.
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Elbow bursitis can affect anyone, but certain groups of people are more likely to develop it, including:
Elbow bursitis is fairly common. More than two-thirds of cases are non-infectious bursitis caused by trauma or sports injuries.
In addition to symptoms like pain and swelling, elbow bursitis makes it hard to use your elbow like you usually can. If the swelling in your olecranon bursa is caused by an injury to your arm, your bursa might be bleeding inside your body.
It might be hard or painful to do daily activities you’re used to while you’re experiencing symptoms.
Symptoms of elbow bursitis include:
Causes of elbow bursitis include:
Your healthcare provider will diagnose elbow bursitis with a physical exam. They’ll listen to your symptoms and examine your elbow.
If your provider suspects your bursitis is caused by an infection (also known as septic bursitis), or if they want to rule out other causes for the pain in your elbow, you might need a few tests including:
How elbow bursitis is treated depends on if it’s caused by an infection.
If you don’t have an infection, you’ll probably only need at-home treatments. These include:
If these treatments don’t work after three to six weeks, your provider might remove the excess fluid around your bursa (called aspiration) and give you a corticosteroid injection to reduce the inflammation.
If you have an infection, your healthcare provider will prescribe antibiotics. You’ll need to take pills for around a week. Make sure to take your antibiotics for as long as your provider prescribes. Even if your symptoms improve, you need to take antibiotics for the length of time they were prescribed to make sure the medicine can kill all the infection remaining in your body.
Your provider might also aspirate your bursa to remove as much of the infected fluid as possible.
It’s rare to need surgery for elbow bursitis. If your symptoms don’t respond to non-surgical treatments — or if you have a severe infection that doesn’t get better after taking antibiotics — you might need surgery.
Surgery to remove your elbow bursa is an outpatient procedure, which means you’ll be able to go home the same day. After surgery, you’ll need a splint or brace to hold your elbow in place while it heals. You’ll need around a month to recover.
Most cases of elbow bursitis heal with rest and other at-home treatments in three to six weeks.
If you have an infection, you should feel better as soon as you start taking your antibiotics. It’s important to finish your full dose, even if your symptoms improve.
The best way to prevent elbow bursitis is to avoid overusing your elbow as much as possible.
Give your body time to rest and recover between sessions of intense exercise or activity. If your job or hobbies require you to use your elbows a lot, make sure you’re using all the proper protective equipment, like wearing elbow pads.
You should expect to make a full recovery if you have elbow bursitis. Even if it’s caused by an infection, bursitis shouldn’t have any long-term impacts on your health or life.
If you can do your job or schoolwork without putting stress on your elbow, you shouldn’t need to miss work or school while recovering.
However, if your job or any of your activities are the cause of your bursitis, you might need to modify your routine while your elbow heals. Talk to your provider about a recovery timeline for your specific symptoms.
Make sure to give your body the time it needs to heal while you’re recovering from elbow bursitis. Don’t work or play through pain. Even if your symptoms start to improve, don’t rush back to sports or other activities, especially if they were the direct cause of your bursitis.
Talk to your provider if you have any of the following symptoms:
Go to the emergency room right away if you’ve experienced a trauma or if any fluid is draining from your elbow.
Is my bursitis caused by an infection?
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Elbow bursitis is a common condition that is often caused by the work you do or the activities you love. Knowing that your daily routine is causing you pain can be frustrating, but bursitis is usually quick to heal and often doesn’t require special treatment. Make sure not to ignore any new symptoms — especially pain or swelling. Taking a short break from the activity that caused your bursitis is usually all you’ll need to do to treat your symptoms.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 03/16/2022.
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