Olecranon Bursitis

This section covers bursitis of the olecranon bursa that occurs after an injury or trauma (traumatic olecranon bursitis). In order to better understand traumatic olecranon bursitis it is important to understand the anatomy and function of the elbow. Please review the section on elbow anatomy before reviewing this section.

The elbow is made up of three bones, which are connected by muscles, ligaments and tendons. The humerus is the large upper arm bone. The ulna and radius are the two bones in the forearm. Looking at the forearm with the palm of the hand facing up, the ulna is located on the inner (medial) aspect of the forearm. The radius is located on the outer (lateral) aspect of the forearm. Projecting from the end of the humerus are the medial and lateral epicondyles. The epicondyles are the boney attachment sites for many of the forearm muscles.

What is the most commonly inured bursa in the elbow?

There are many different bursae around the elbow but the one that is most commonly injured is the olecranon bursa. A bursa (pl. bursae) is a small fluid filled sac that decreases the friction between two tissues. Bursae also protect bony structures.

The olecranon bursa is usually very thin. When irritated or injured the olecranon bursa can fill with fluid or blood and become large and painful. If repeatedly irritated or injured, the walls of the bursa may thicken and have irregular areas of scar tissue that are often mistaken as “bone chips”. Calcium may also collect inside the bursa.

After a direct blow to the elbow the olecranon bursa can become swollen. This can occur immediately or over a couple of hours. The degree of swelling can vary. The elbow is usually very painful to touch and it can also be painful to move. In addition, the area around the olecranon bursa may be warm. If there is significant swelling X-rays are usually performed to rule out a broken or chipped bone.

What is the treatment for olecranon bursitis?

Depending on the severity of the injury, the treatment of traumatic olecranon bursitis may include resting the elbow, applying ice packs to the area, light compression of the elbow with a tensor bandage and elevation of the injured arm. Medications to help reduce the swelling and pain may also be required. If there is a large amount of swelling and the elbow is uncomfortable the bursa may need to be drained by a doctor.

After the swelling comes down and the bursa is less painful, padding the area may be required for some types of work, sports and recreational activities like gardening. In rare cases surgery is required to remove an olecrenon bursa that remains swollen or is repeatedly irritated or injured.

What are the potential complications of olecranon bursitis?

Complications of traumatic olecranon bursitis include repeated irritation or injury, persistent pain and/or swelling or infection in the bursa. These complications require different types of treatment. Doctors trained in treating these types of injuries can outline an individualized treatment for traumatic olecrenon bursitis.

Please visit the links section for additional information on olecranon bursitis. Links have been provided to other websites as well as online medical journals. Other elbow injury topics can also be accessed.