Olecranon bursitis is a common cause of pain and swelling at the back of the elbow.
Also known as elbow bursitis, it develops when there is irritation and swelling in the olecranon bursa, a small, fluid-filled sac.
Olecranon bursitis may or may not be painful, depending on the amount of swelling and whether there is an associated infection.
If you think your elbow is looking a bit like Popeye’s elbow with a lump, bulge or pocket of swelling at the back, chances are you have elbow bursitis.
Here we will look at the common causes and symptoms of olecranon bursitis, how it is diagnosed and treated and when you should see your doctor.
Olecranon bursitis is a common cause of elbow swelling where there is inflammation of the olecranon bursa at the back of the elbow.
The olecranon process is the bony tip of your elbow, located on the end of the ulna - one of the forearm bones. The olecranon is the pointy bit that sticks out at the back of your elbow when you bend your arm or rest your elbow on the table.
The olecranon bursa is a small, fluid-filled sac that sits between the olecranon process and the overlying skin.
Its job is to protect and cushion the elbow and to allow the skin, tendons and ligaments to move freely over the ulna bone.
Normally, the olecranon bursa rests flat against the elbow so you don’t even notice it, but if it becomes irritated, it starts to swell and you soon know about it.
There are lots of different names for olecranon bursitis: elbow bursitis, popeye elbow, baker’s elbow, student’s elbow, miner’s elbow, plumber’s elbow, draftsman’s elbow and swellbow, but they all refer to the same thing.
Common causes of olecranon bursitis include:
Any of these things can cause inflammation of the lining of the olecranon bursa. The bursa reacts by producing extra fluid in an attempt to protect and heal itself. This excess fluid accumulates and is contained in the sac – think of the bursa as being like a water balloon, so the bursa begins to swell resulting in olecranon bursitis.
Common symptoms of olecranon bursitis include:
Olecranon bursitis doesn’t usually limit elbow movement.
Doctors can diagnose most cases of olecranon bursitis simply by examining your elbow, without the need for further tests.
In some cases, they may send you for an x-ray or ultrasound scan to check for an underlying fracture or bone spur.
If they suspect there may been an infection, aka septic olecranon bursitis, or gout, then your doctor will drain some of the fluid, known as aspiration, and send it for analysis. Normal bursa fluid is clear or straw coloured, but if you have an infection, it can turn to pus and the fluid may be cloudy, milky, yellowy, green or even brown.
Most cases of olecranon bursitis can be treated with a combination of:
Most cases of olecranon bursitis will settle down on their own with simple home treatment in a few weeks without the need for medical attention, but if you notice any of the following symptoms, see your doctor as soon as possible:
Elbow bursitis is caused by excess fluid in the olecranon bursa, which may be caused by a one-off injury, repetitive friction/pressure or an infection at the elbow.
Olecranon bursitis causes soft, localised swelling at the back of the elbow that may develop over a few hours or several days.
Elbow movement is rarely affected by olecranon bursitis but there may be some pain when the elbow is fully bent.
Signs of septic elbow bursitis include progressive swelling, redness, heat and pain at the back of the elbow and may cause you to feel unwell, such as having a fever. Septic olecranon bursitis requires immediate medical attention and will usually require antibiotics.
Non-septic olecranon bursitis can be treated with a combination of rest, avoiding aggravating activities, ice, compression bandages, elbow pads and medication. In some cases, your doctor may also recommend aspiration and/or corticosteroid injections.
In cases of elbow bursitis, symptoms will settle within a few weeks but in some cases, surgery may be required. It usually takes around 3-4 weeks to full recovery from olecranon bursectomy surgery.
Olecranon bursitis is also known as elbow bursitis, popeye elbow, student’s elbow, baker’s elbow, miner’s elbow, draftsman’s elbow, plumber’s elbow and swellbow.
If olecranon bursitis isn't sounding quite like your problem, visit the elbow pain diagnosis section for help working out what's wrong.
Page Last Updated: 12/15/2022
Next Review Due: 12/15/2024