What is Olecranon Bursitis?

D. Jeffress

Olecranon bursitis is a type of elbow inflammation that usually results from a fall or direct blow to the arm. A person may experience swelling at the base of the elbow, skin redness, dull pain, and a limited range of motion. In most cases, olecranon bursitis can be treated at home by simply resting and icing the joint for several days. Severe or persistent pain should be assessed by a doctor to check for more serious damage to bone or cartilage tissue.

An x-ray of the elbow may be performed to diagnose bursitis.
An x-ray of the elbow may be performed to diagnose bursitis.

The olecranon is the large, rounded end of the forearm's ulna bone. It is lined by a thin, fluid-filled sac called a bursa that offers cushioning and joint lubrication. When the bursa becomes inflamed, it tends to swell and prevent the joint from comfortably bending or rotating.

People suffering from olecranon bursitis may be required to wear a sling.
People suffering from olecranon bursitis may be required to wear a sling.

Olecranon bursitis is a very common injury in athletes who play contact sports where falls and direct hits are common. The condition can also develop over time when the elbow is subjected to pressure or rubbing on a surface, such as a school desk. People who have arthritis are at an increased risk of bursitis. In some cases, bacteria that enter an open wound near the elbow can infect and inflame the bursa.

The first sign of olecranon bursitis is a large bump on the end of the elbow that is accompanied by sharp pains. The pain dulls over time, though the bump typically remains tender to the touch for several days. It is often uncomfortable or impossible to fully bend and straighten the arm. Depending on the severity of the injury, a person may not be able to grasp or hold even light objects, such as a coffee cup.

Unless the pain is debilitating, an individual can usually avoid a trip to the hospital. If there is any question about the severity of the injury, however, medical care should be sought. A mild case of olecranon bursitis can be relieved by taking over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications, icing the elbow several times a day, keeping the arm elevated, and avoiding excessive activity. Swelling tends to go down after a few days, though it may take up to two weeks before pain subsides. Once the arm starts feeling better, light stretching activities can help rebuild flexibility and strength.

A doctor can evaluate a case of severe bursitis by taking x-rays of the elbow and conducting a thorough physical exam. Imaging tests may reveal an olecranon fracture or a ligament tear, injuries that may require surgery to prevent long-term complications. When the injury is limited to bursitis, the doctor usually prescribes medications to lessen pain and inflammation and instructs the patient to rest and ice the elbow. The patient may be fitted with a splint or sling to help immobilize the joint during the recovery phase.

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