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Olecranon Bursitis

Last updated Dec. 11, 2018

Approved by: Maulik P. Purohit MD, MPH

Olecranon Bursitis is a condition that occurs when the bursa becomes irritated and inflamed, causing the bursa sac to expand. It is usually caused by a direct trauma to the elbow.

What are the other Names for this Condition? (Also known as/Synonyms)

  • Acute Olecranon Bursitis
  • Popeye Elbow
  • Student’s Elbow

What is Olecranon Bursitis? (Definition/Background Information)

  • A bursa is characterized as a fluid–filled sac that acts as a cushion, to help the muscles, ligaments, and tendons, glide easily over the bones
  • The olecranon is the bony tip at the upper end of the ulna bone (one of the forearm bones), located behind the elbow
  • Olecranon Bursitis is a condition that occurs when the bursa becomes irritated and inflamed, causing the bursa sac to expand. It is usually caused by a direct trauma to the elbow
  • Since, bursae are located throughout the body; a bursitis not only affects the olecranon, but other locations too. Other areas of the body that may develop this inflammatory condition include the shoulder, hip, knee, and heel
  • Treatment measures for Olecranon Bursitis include both nonsurgical and surgical methods. The prognosis for the condition is generally good with proper treatment

Who gets Olecranon Bursitis? (Age and Sex Distribution)

  • Olecranon Bursitis may occur in individuals of all age, race, ethnic groups, and gender
  • The condition has a high prevalence rate among individuals, who are physically active

What are the Risk Factors for Olecranon Bursitis? (Predisposing Factors)

Common risk factors associated with Olecranon Bursitis include:

  • Participation in any rough or high-impact sport
  • Chronic inflammatory disorder (such as rheumatoid arthritis)
  • Gout: A medical condition caused by a high level of uric acid in blood

It is important to note that having a risk factor does not mean that one will get the condition. A risk factor increases ones chances of getting a condition compared to an individual without the risk factors. Some risk factors are more important than others.

Also, not having a risk factor does not mean that an individual will not get the condition. It is always important to discuss the effect of risk factors with your healthcare provider.

What are the Causes of Olecranon Bursitis? (Etiology)

The causes of Olecranon Bursitis include:

  • A direct fall; especially falling on one’s elbow
  • A bacterial infection (infection of the bursa)
  • Extended pressure on the elbow, over a prolonged period of time may cause swelling of the bursa
  • If an injury to the tip of the elbow penetrates through the skin, such as with an insect bite, a scrape, or a puncture wound, it may cause an infection of the bursa sac
  • Chronic inflammatory disorder (like rheumatoid arthritis)
  • Gout: A medical condition caused by high uric acid levels in blood
  • Taking part in any rough or high-impact sport

What are the Signs and Symptoms of Olecranon Bursitis?

Athletes, who develop Olecranon Bursitis, may experience symptoms within minutes after the injury occurs. Those, who have Chronic Bursitis, usually develop signs and symptoms over a period of several weeks.

The signs and symptoms of Olecranon Bursitis may include:

  • Swelling, severe pain at the tip of the elbow
  • Difficulty moving the elbow joint

How is Olecranon Bursitis Diagnosed?

Diagnostic methods that a physician may use to help diagnose Olecranon Bursitis include:

  • Physical examination: A physician will perform a thorough physical examination to determine, if the individual has Olecranon Bursitis. In addition to this, a complete medical history can aid in arriving at a definitive diagnosis
  • X-ray of the elbow joint: This imaging tool is not helpful in determining a diagnosis of bursitis. However, it may aid in ruling out, other possible causes for discomfort, such as the growth of bone spurs, etc.
  • Blood test: A blood test is a routine test used to diagnose various diseases and conditions. The blood sample drawn is taken to a laboratory for analysis, to test for any signs of any infection. It is also helpful in evaluating the cause of bursitis, such as rheumatoid arthritis
  • Joint fluid culture: A needle is used to drain fluid from within the bursa. The fluid sample is then taken to a laboratory for analysis. Removal of the bursa fluid may also help relieve the symptoms
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of the affected region: An MRI is a more detailed scan that uses radio waves and a magnetic field to produce images that allow a physician diagnose the severity of Olecranon Bursitis
  • Ultrasound imaging of the elbow joint: In this mode, high-frequency sound waves are used to generate a more detailed image of the elbow

Many clinical conditions may have similar signs and symptoms. Your healthcare provider may perform additional tests to rule out other clinical conditions to arrive at a definitive diagnosis.

What are the possible Complications of Olecranon Bursitis?

Complications of Olecranon Bursitis include:

  • Chronic pain, persistent swelling of the elbow
  • Difficulty bending or straightening the elbow
  • Development of an infection within the olecranon bursa

How is Olecranon Bursitis Treated?

A majority of the individuals, who develop non-infected Olecranon Bursitis, seldom require a surgery; in others, surgery may be necessary.

Nonsurgical treatment measures include:

  • Any activity that aggravates the elbow condition should be avoided. The physician may advise the individual to refrain from participating in any physical activity, till the pain or symptoms get better
  • Applying ice or a damp heated towel, to the elbow/arm can help reduce pain and swelling
  • Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory oral medications, such as Ibuprofen and naproxen, can help reduce the pain and swelling, in the elbow

Surgical treatment measures include:

  • Incision and drainage: Incision and drainage is a non-invasive surgical procedure that involves the drainage of fluid, which has build-up in the infected bursa. This surgical procedure is performed under a general anesthetic
  • Arthroscopic bursectomy: It is a minimally invasive surgical procedure, used to remove the infected bursa, using an orthopedic device and a tiny camera, called an arthroscope. This instrument is inserted through a tiny incision in the elbow and the infected bursa removed

How can Olecranon Bursitis be Prevented?

To prevent Olecranon Bursitis, individuals should be careful and consciously aware while performing any physical activities, such as sports, or even some normal daily activities that could lead to situations involving accidents. Children must be provided a safe environment to work, study, or play. Any possible dangers should also be anticipated and appropriate safety measures adopted.

A few ways to further help prevent unwanted injuries or Olecranon Bursitis include:

  • By undertaking a proper treatment of rheumatoid arthritis and gout
  • Avoid any sustained pressure on the elbow, over a prolonged period of time
  • Wearing appropriate footwear (such as the proper shoe size) may help prevent accidents
  • Individuals, who participate in any high-risk sports, such as football, should wear appropriate safety equipment to help prevent the possibility of any injury, including Olecranon Bursitis

What is the Prognosis of Olecranon Bursitis? (Outcomes/Resolutions)

  • The long-term prognosis of Olecranon Bursitis is usually good, for a majority of the individuals
  • A high percentage of individuals with an infected bursa sac, regain their full strength and range of motion of the elbow, within a few weeks of surgery

Additional and Relevant Useful Information for Olecranon Bursitis:

The following DoveMed website link is a useful resource for additional information:


What are some Useful Resources for Additional Information?

References and Information Sources used for the Article:

Helpful Peer-Reviewed Medical Articles:

Reviewed and Approved by a member of the DoveMed Editorial Board
First uploaded: May 20, 2014
Last updated: Dec. 11, 2018