Elbow Bursitis

Skip Navigation

Condition Basics

What is elbow bursitis?

Bursitis is pain and swelling of the bursae. These are sacs of fluid that help your joints move smoothly. Olecranon bursitis is a type of bursitis that affects the back of the elbow.

What causes it?

There are three general causes of elbow bursitis:

  • Inflammation, such as from pressure on the bursa or from inflammatory conditions. This is the most common cause of elbow bursitis.
  • A sudden injury, such as a blow to the elbow, causing bleeding or fluid buildup.
  • Infection caused by any of the following:
    • An injury at the site of the bursa.
    • An infection in tissue near the bursa that spreads to the bursa.
    • A blood-borne infection. This is rare.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms may include:

  • Pain, especially with elbow movement or pressure on the elbow.
  • Swelling. The affected elbow may have a lump. This is caused by increased fluid in the bursa and is tender when moved or touched.
  • Redness, red streaking, warmth, fever, and swollen lymph nodes in the armpit caused by infection.

How is it diagnosed?

Your doctor will ask about your medical history and do a physical exam. If the swelling is from an injury, X-rays may help see if the elbow is broken. If your doctor is concerned about an infection in your elbow, the doctor may test fluid drained from the elbow with a needle.

How can you care for yourself at home?

Home treatment can help reduce pain and let the bursa heal. This includes resting the affected area and avoiding activity that may cause pain. You can also apply ice or cold packs to your elbow. Doing range-of-motion exercises can help prevent stiffness and strengthen the joint muscles. Take medicines exactly as prescribed.

How is elbow bursitis treated?

Home treatment is often enough to reduce pain and let the bursa in your elbow heal. Avoid activities that cause pain or that put pressure on the area. Try to avoid leaning on your elbow.

Your doctor may suggest physical therapy. A physical therapist can teach you how to protect your joint as you do your daily activities. You may need to wear a splint on your elbow while it heals.

Sometimes the fluid in the bursa can get infected. If this happens, you will need antibiotics. Some people need surgery to drain or remove the bursa.


Current as of: July 17, 2023

Author: Healthwise Staff
Clinical Review Board
All Healthwise education is reviewed by a team that includes physicians, nurses, advanced practitioners, registered dieticians, and other healthcare professionals.

The Health Encyclopedia contains general health information. Not all treatments or services described are covered benefits for Kaiser Permanente members or offered as services by Kaiser Permanente. For a list of covered benefits, please refer to your Evidence of Coverage or Summary Plan Description. For recommended treatments, please consult with your health care provider.