Elbow Bursitis Treatment

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Dr Poh Seng Yew

MBBS

MRCSEd

MMED (Ortho)

FRCSEd

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What is Elbow Bursitis?

Elbow bursitis, medically known as olecranon bursitis, is a condition characterised by painful swelling at the elbow joint. This inflammation occurs in the olecranon bursa, a fluid-filled sac that acts as a cushion between bones and soft tissues in the joint. The primary function of this bursa is to facilitate smooth movement, reducing friction between the bone and surrounding soft tissue.

In elbow bursitis, the olecranon bursa becomes irritated or inflamed, leading to an accumulation of fluid. This can result in discomfort and impaired movement of the elbow. The pain experienced can be either sudden or gradual, depending on the underlying cause and severity of the inflammation.

Causes of Elbow Bursitis

Elbow bursitis can arise from a variety of factors, each contributing to the irritation and inflammation of the olecranon bursa.

  • Traumatic Injury
    Direct injury to the elbow, such as a hard hit or fall, can cause immediate swelling of the bursa. This trauma can prompt excess fluid accumulation within the bursa, potentially leading to bursitis.
  • Prolonged Pressure on the Elbow
    Resting the elbow on hard surfaces for extended periods can lead to inflammation. Occupations or activities that involve frequent elbow leaning, such as plumbing or certain technical work, heighten the risk of developing bursitis.
  • Bacterial Infection
    Bacteria entering through a cut or injury near the elbow can infect the bursa. In some cases, the bursa may become infected even without a visible injury, leading to inflammation.
  • Underlying Medical Conditions
    Certain systemic medical conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis and gout, are associated with the occurrence of elbow bursitis. These conditions contribute to the inflammation of the bursa either directly or through systemic inflammatory processes.

Symptoms and Signs

Common symptoms and signs of elbow bursitis include:


  • Swelling: Swelling at the back of the elbow is often the first noticeable symptom. It can range from mild to severe, depending on the condition.
  • Pain: Pain typically ensues as the bursa becomes more inflamed and stretches. This can vary in intensity and may be exacerbated by elbow movements.
  • Redness and Warmth: In cases of inflammation or infection, the skin over the elbow may appear red and feel warm to the touch. This is a sign of the body’s inflammatory response at the site.
  • Restricted Movement: Inflammation and pain may lead to a limited range of motion in the elbow, making it difficult to fully extend or bend the arm.

Diagnosis

The process of diagnosing elbow bursitis typically involves a combination of clinical assessment and diagnostic tests.

  • Medical Review: Initially, the elbow specialist will carry out a thorough assessment of the patient’s medical history and review any symptoms they may be experiencing.
  • Clinical Examination: The elbow specialist will also conduct a physical examination, assessing the elbow for signs of swelling, pain, redness, and warmth. The range of motion and functionality of the joint may also be evaluated through specific tests.
  • Imaging Tests: X-rays, MRI scans, or ultrasounds may be utilised to confirm the diagnosis or rule out other conditions. These tests can provide detailed views of the elbow structure, helping in identifying any underlying issues like bone spurs or foreign bodies.
  • Fluid Analysis: If infection is suspected, or to confirm the cause of bursitis, a fluid sample may be taken from the bursa for analysis. This procedure, known as aspiration, can detect the presence of bacteria or crystals, indicative of infection or gout.

Non-Surgical Treatment Options

Elbow bursitis is typically treated using various non-surgical methods. These approaches are usually effective in managing the symptoms of elbow bursitis and promoting healing.

Rest and Activity Modification

In less severe cases, the elbow specialist may suggest avoiding or modifying activities that exacerbate elbow bursitis. Rest helps in reducing inflammation and gives the bursa time to heal.

Elbow Pads

Elbow pads can be used to cushion the joint and protect it from further trauma or pressure, especially in situations where prolonged elbow contact is unavoidable.

Physical Therapy

Engaging in physical therapy can help improve joint mobility and strengthen the muscles around the elbow. This can aid in recovery and help prevent future episodes.

Medications

Over-the-counter non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen may be used to alleviate pain and reduce inflammation.

Aspiration

In cases of severe swelling, aspiration may be conducted to drain the fluid from the bursa. While this may offer relief, it also has a risk of bursitis recurrence.

Surgical Treatment Options

Surgery for elbow bursitis is considered when non-surgical treatments do not provide adequate relief or in cases of severe or recurrent bursitis.

Bursa Removal

The most common surgical procedure for elbow bursitis involves removing the inflamed bursa. This procedure, known as bursectomy, is typically performed as an outpatient surgery, meaning patients can go home the same day.

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Prevention Strategies

Several measures can be taken to minimise stress and strain on the elbow joint, reducing the risk of developing elbow bursitis.

  • Avoiding Repetitive Stress - Minimising activities that involve repetitive motion or prolonged pressure on the elbow can help in preventing bursitis. This is particularly relevant for individuals in occupations or sports that require frequent elbow use.
  • Using Protective Equipment to Support the Elbow - Wearing elbow pads during activities that put the elbow at risk, such as certain sports or manual labour, can provide cushioning and reduce the risk of bursitis.
  • Making Ergonomic Adjustments to Reduce Elbow Strain - Making ergonomic changes to workstations or tools can help reduce strain on the elbow. This might involve adjusting the height of desks or using equipment that requires less elbow pressure.
  • Regular Breaks and Exercise - Taking regular breaks during activities that involve prolonged elbow use and engaging in exercises that strengthen the muscles around the elbow can reduce the risk of bursitis.
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Dr Poh Seng Yew

MBBS

MRCSEd

MMED (Ortho)

FRCSEd

With over 18 years of experience, Dr Poh Seng Yew is an orthopaedic surgeon specialising in hip, knee, shoulder and elbow surgery, sports medicine, and trauma surgery.

  • Bachelor of Medicine, Bachelor of Surgery (MBBS), National University of Singapore
  • Member, Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh (MRCSEd)
  • Master of Medicine (Orthopaedic Surgery), National University of Singapore
  • Fellow, Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, FRCSEd (Orthopaedic Surgery)
  • Clinical Hip and Sports Medicine Fellow, Orthopädische Chirurgie München (OCM), Germany

 

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Mount Elizabeth Novena Specialist Centre
38 Irrawaddy Road, #08-62/63
Singapore 329563
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Weekdays: 9.00am – 5.00pm
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    Mount Elizabeth Novena Specialist Centre
    38 Irrawaddy Road, #08-62/63
    Singapore 329563

    Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

    Can Elbow Bursitis Go Away on Its Own?

    While mild cases of elbow bursitis may show improvement with self-care measures such as rest, ice application, and avoiding activities that aggravate the condition, it is beneficial to consult an elbow specialist to prevent the condition from worsening. Timely evaluation and intervention can help lead to effective management.

    Can I Continue to Use My Arm If I Have Elbow Bursitis?

    The affected arm should generally be rested to facilitate the healing of the inflamed bursa. Complete immobilisation is not always required, and gentle movements or exercises may be conducted at the discretion of the elbow specialist to help maintain the range of motion and prevent stiffness.

    What Happens If Elbow Bursitis Is Left Untreated?

    Untreated elbow bursitis can lead to chronic pain and sustained swelling, potentially limiting the range of motion and overall functionality of the elbow. In cases of infectious bursitis, the risk of spreading infection increases. Timely consultation with an elbow specialist can help lead to appropriate treatment, especially in persistent or worsening cases.

    What Exercises Can Help Treat Elbow Bursitis?

    Exercises like elbow flexion and extension, wrist movements using light weights or resistance bands, and forearm movements may assist in the management of elbow bursitis. Specific exercises should be discussed with the elbow specialist for personalised guidance that aligns with the individual’s condition and recovery goals.