When most people think of elbow pain, their mind jumps to that painful bumped funny bone. But if you have a painful lump on your elbow, it could be elbow bursitis. This condition is also referred to as olecranon bursitis.
The olecranon is the pointed bone at the tip of the elbow. Between the point of the elbow and the skin, there is a thin sac of fluid known as a bursa.
Bursas are located near joints and cushion your bones, muscles, and tendons. Your elbow bursa helps your skin smoothly slide over the olecranon bone.
If a bursa gets inflamed, it can fill with extra fluid and become a painful condition known as bursitis. Bursitis can also commonly occur in joints near your:
The symptoms of elbow bursitis include:
- achy feeling
- pain with movement or pressure
- red and swollen appearance
Swelling can develop gradually over time or it can appear abruptly.
Treatment usually requires rest and protection from further trauma. Elbow bursitis often dissipates after a few weeks of treatment, but flare-ups of bursitis are common.
Here are ten steps you can take to help heal your bursitis at home:
A good place to start when trying to heal your bursitis is to rest the joint.
Bursitis often happens to joints that are used for frequent repetitive motions. You can develop this condition because of sports like tennis or golf.
Elbow bursitis can also be caused by long periods of leaning on your elbows, or after a trauma, like falling on your elbow.
If a behavior or habitual action caused your inflammation, the best thing you can do is to avoid this action. If you can avoid irritating the bursa, often bursitis will go away on its own.
Icing the elbow for the first 48 hours after symptoms begin can reduce swelling.
The cold helps to reduce blood flow to the area, which can decrease inflammation. Cold therapy can also help temporarily relieve pain by decreasing nerve activity.
Never apply ice directly to your elbow, as this can cause injury to the skin. Instead, try wrapping the ice in a towel. Apply ice to the skin in short 15- to 20-minute periods to prevent nerve damage.
Try applying heat or taking a warm bath. Heat helps to improve circulation, which can help decrease stiffness. Heat can also work to soothe your discomfort.
It’s important that your heat therapy is warm rather than hot, so you can avoid the risk of burning yourself.
Treating with heat and cold can be effective for bursitis and many other types of inflammation. But if either causes you more pain or swelling, stop the treatment immediately.
It’s good to avoid activities that apply pressure or stress on the elbow, including some types of contact sports, exercise sports, and heavy lifting.
If a repetitive action caused your flare-up, try your best to avoid those actions. If you must engage in it, try taking regular rest breaks or alternate that action with others. Talk to your doctor about what alternatives you could do instead.
Take over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers to reduce pain and inflammation.
Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are widely available anti-inflammatory medications that do not require a prescription. These include aspirin, ibuprofen (like Advil or Motrin), and naproxen (Aleve).
There are also topical formulations that you can apply to the skin that may help with pain, such as a cream that contains capsaicin.
Use an elbow pad to cushion your elbow while you sit, work, or sleep.
Not only does the padding help you to avoid hitting the elbow, but it also wraps the area around the elbow.
The wrapping causes compression and traps heat. Compression can help reduce swelling, and warmth can decrease stiffness.
If the inflammation is caused by an infection, you will need to take antibiotics.
It’s important to take the full course of antibiotics prescribed, even if your symptoms improve before you’ve finished the prescription.
Certain exercises can help strengthen the muscles near the elbow to reduce pain and prevent problems in the future.
Consult with a healthcare professional before trying elbow rehabilitation exercises. You should also start slow and taper down your exercise regimen if you experience pain.
Common stretches include:
- Lift the arm that hurts, and bend at the elbow.
- Face your palm towards you.
- With your other hand, gently press on the back of the affected forearm.
- Press your hand towards your shoulder until you feel a stretch in your upper arm.
- Hold for 15–30 seconds and repeat a few more times.
- Extend your affected arm in front of you with your palm facing away.
- Bend your wrist back, with your fingers pointed towards the ceiling.
- With your other hand, gently bend your wrist further, until you feel a stretch in your forearm.
- Hold for 15–30 seconds, and repeat a few times.
- Do the same steps, but this time point your finger down to the ground.
Pronation and supination stretches
- Bend the affected elbow at your side at about 90 degrees and make a fist.
- Slowly turn your forearm back and forth in each direction (your hand will face up then down).
- Hold each position for 6 seconds, and relax for 10 seconds in-between.
- Repeat 8–12 times.
- In a seated position, place your hand and forearm on your thigh, palm facing down.
- With your forearm still on your thigh, flip your hand over, so the palm is facing up.
- Repeat 8–12 times.
Contact your doctor if you have difficulty performing these stretches, and make sure to attend follow-up appointments so your doctor can monitor your progress.
Directly injecting the problematic bursa with corticosteroids can help reduce the pain and inflammation caused by your bursitis.
Sometimes the bursa will need to be drained. This process is called aspiration. After numbing the area with a local anesthetic, a healthcare provider will inject a needle into the inflamed bursa to remove the fluid.
In rare cases, the bursa may need to be surgically removed. Doctors tend to avoid this as the incision can become infected. But if your bursitis has been a chronic issue for 6 to 12 months, your doctor may recommend surgery.
Elbow bursitis usually only takes a few weeks to heal with proper rest and rehabilitation. After surgery, your doctor will likely apply a splint to your arm to immobilize it. You’ll be asked to take it easy and follow your doctor’s instructions.
Typically, it only takes about three to four weeks to get use of the elbow back, but your doctor will need to give you approval. Some people may take as long as eight weeks to make a full recovery.
Not every kind of bursitis is preventable, but you can decrease the severity of this condition. You can also lower your risk of future flare-ups.
You should try to avoid lifting heavy loads and reduce the stress you put on the joint. That said, exercising and muscle building could help prevent future injury.
If you have or are prone to bursitis, make sure to stretch and warm up before any exercise or activity that could cause stress to the joint. Talk with an exercise professional if you have questions about what types of exercises to do.
You should see a doctor if:
- your elbow becomes warm to the touch
- you develop chills or a fever
- you develop bruising or a rash
- your bursa become extremely swollen or painful
- you’re unable to extend your arm or properly flex the joint
Your doctor may order testing to determine if you have a broken bone, a bone spur, or a calcium deposit in the elbow. There will likely also be testing to determine if you have an undiagnosed inflammatory condition.
Your doctor may test your blood, or some fluid from the bursa, to determine if you have an active infection. If so, they may prescribe antibiotics.
When a bursa is infected, the area can feel warm to the touch and you can develop chills or a fever. In some cases, infected bursitis can burst and leak pus.
Elbow bursitis can be a painful condition, but it often goes away with proper rest and rehabilitation.
Some bursitis cases can require aspiration, corticosteroid injections, or surgery. See your doctor if your pain doesn’t go away, or you notice signs of infection.