If you’ve had a bad blow to one of your elbows or spend a lot of time leaning on them, you could see the tip of the joint get red and swollen. In severe cases of swelling, a lump could form, jutting out from the tip -- kind of like the cartoon character Popeye. That’s why olecranon bursitis is sometimes called “Popeye’s elbow.”
A bursa is a sac full of fluid. Bursa occur throughout your body, acting as cushions between body parts, such as where muscles and tendons glide over bones and near large joints such as your shoulders, hips, and knees.
The bursa in your elbow, called the olecranon bursa, reduces friction between the skin and the pointy bone in your elbow, which you can feel when you bend it.
You don’t notice the bursa because it usually lies flat, conforming to the shape of your bone. But when it gets irritated, the bursa can get swollen and large.
Your elbow can start swelling for several reasons:
Trauma: A hard blow to the elbow such as hitting it or falling on top of it could cause the bursa to swell.
Too much pressure: Leaning your elbow against a hard surface over a long time can irritate the bursa. Plumbers, air-conditioning technicians, and others who have to work on their elbows are more likely to get this.
Other conditions: If you have another condition such as rheumatoid arthritis (a disease where your immune system attacks your joints), gout (a type of arthritis), or kidney failure in which you need dialysis (your blood is filtered through a machine), you have a higher chance of getting Popeye’s elbow.
Infection: If your bursa is infected from a cut, scrape, or insect bite, this will cause the sac to fill up with extra fluid, swell, and get red.
You may see some of these symptoms when you have elbow bursitis:
Swelling: This is usually the first symptom you’ll notice. The skin on the back of the elbow may be loose, so you may not see the swelling at first. In some cases, the swelling flares up quickly and you might notice it right away. As the swelling gets bigger, it can look like a golf ball at the tip of your elbow.
Pain: As the bursa stretches, this can start causing pain in your elbows, especially when you bend them. There is usually no pain when the elbow is extended. But some people with elbow bursitis don’t feel any pain whether their elbows are flexed or not.
Redness or warmth: If you see this in the area around your elbow, you might have an infected bursa.
Tenderness: Another sign is sensitivity in and around the elbow.
Pus: Watch for a yellow or white, thick, cloudy fluid draining from an infected bursa.
Discuss your symptoms and medical history with your doctor.
Your doctor will examine your arm and elbow. In some cases, they may suggest an X-ray, which looks to see whether a broken bone or a piece of bony growth (called a bone spur) is causing your elbow to swell.
Bone spurs on the tip of the elbow bone could repeatedly cause you to have elbow bursitis.
They could also order a blood test to see whether you have an infection, but this is not usually very helpful.
Your doctor may take a sample of the fluid from your bursa. This will be done using a needle. The fluid sample is taken to the lab for further testing. If the fluid is pus, this means you have an infection.
Treatment is about easing your discomfort and taking steps to prevent or cure infection.
If your elbow bursa is not infected, take the following steps:
- Protect your elbow. This could mean wearing elbow pads or a wrap to cushion it.
- Avoid activities that put direct pressure on your affected elbow.
- Take pain medicine such as ibuprofen or other anti-inflammatories to reduce the swelling and the pain. Follow your doctor’s directions and read the medicine label carefully.
If you don’t see improvements in pain and swelling in your elbow after taking these steps for 3 to 4 weeks, let your doctor know.
They may suggest draining the fluid from your bursa and injecting a medicine to reduce the swelling. An injection of corticosteroid, a medication commonly used to reduce inflammation and redness, may be used to lessen the pain and swelling.
If your elbow bursitis isn’t getting better despite medicine and treatment, your doctor may recommend surgery. Depending on your case, the entire bursa may be removed. You’ll most likely stay overnight in the hospital to have this done. The bursa usually grows back normally after several months.
You typically need about 3 to 4 weeks to regain full use of your elbow after surgery.