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Understanding Bursitis -- Diagnosis and Treatment

Medically Reviewed by David Zelman, MD on January 16, 2021

How Is Bursitis Diagnosed?

Your doctor will diagnose bursitis based on your symptoms and findings on a physical exam. Some diagnostic tests may be performed to rule out other causes of your pain. These include the following:

  • X-ray of the affected area to look for bony spurs (abnormal areas) or arthritis
  • Aspiration, in which fluid is taken from the swollen bursa and evaluated under a microscope, to rule out gout or infection
  • Blood tests to screen for conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis or diabetes
  • Magnetic resonance imaging test (MRI), particularly of the shoulder when conservative measures fail to improve symptoms
     

 

How Is Bursitis Treated?

Although bursitis generally disappears in a few days or weeks, the pain may be persistent.

Initial treatment typically consists of over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as Aleve or Advil, to reduce pain and inflammation.

Ice may be applied to the affected area (although not directly on the skin), as recommended by your doctor.

A corticosteroid may be injected into and around the inflamed bursae (the fluid-filled sacs that cushion joints affected by bursitis). In severe cases, it may be necessary to use a needle to withdraw fluid from the inflamed and swollen bursae. This can help relieve the pressure. In persistent conditions, bursae can be surgically removed.

A physical therapy program that includes stretching and focused strengthening exercises may be helpful. A physical therapist may also apply heat and ultrasound to relax the muscles around the joint.

Bursitis may recur, particularly if you engage regularly in strenuous exercise or physical labor. You should take measures to avoid further strain or injury.

How Can I Prevent Bursitis?

Warming up before strenuous exercise and cooling down afterward is the most effective way to avoid bursitis and other strains affecting the bones, muscles, and ligaments. Avoid activities that aggravate the problem. Rest the affected area after activity. Cushion your joints to avoid prolonged pressure and trauma (elbows, knees).