The elbow joint consists of the joining of three bones: one from the upper arm (humerus), and two from the forearm (ulna and radius). The collateral ligaments are strong bands of tissue that hold the bones together in proper alignment. The elbow is both a ball-and-socket joint as well as a hinge joint, allowing the elbow to bend (flexion) and straighten (extension) as well as enable the hand to rotate palm-up (supination) and palm-down (pronation).
The pointy bone at the back of the elbow is called the olecranon which has a thin sac called the olecranon bursa which overlies it and acts as a cushion between the olecranon and the soft tissues making up the loose skin. A normal olecranon bursa is rather flat; however, if it becomes irritated or inflamed, more fluid will develop in the bursa, resulting in elbow bursitis. Elbow bursitis can occur due to a traumatic event such as a blow to the elbow, or when there is repetitive pressure placed on the elbow (such as plumbers), or an untreated infection at the tip of the elbow.
Signs and symptoms of an elbow bursitis include:
- Swelling at the elbow which ends up causing pain
- Pain when direct pressure is applied to the elbow or when bending the elbow
- In case of infection, the skin might be red and feel relatively warm to the touch
- In extreme cases an infected bursa might “pop” and drain pus
It is strongly advised to seek medical attention if an individual experiences severe pain or suspects an infected bursa.
Diagnosis of an elbow bursitis is generally made by a physical examination. After discussing symptoms and any injury that may have occurred, the physician will examine the affected arm and elbow. The physician may also order X-rays to check for fractures in the bones that make up the elbow joint as well as any bone spurs due to arthritis. The physician may drain the bursa sac with a needle or take a small sample of the fluid in the bursa to test for infection.
The treatment for elbow bursitis depends on the cause of the bursitis. If the physician suspects that the development of elbow bursitis is due to an infection, they may recommend draining the bursa fluid with a needle as this will relieve the symptoms. The physician will then test the fluid to identify what the appropriate antibiotic medication is necessary to treat the infection.
If the elbow bursitis is not a result of an infection, it may be treated with an elbow pad to provide cushioning to the elbow, activity modification to avoid movements that cause direct pressure on the affected elbow, or anti-inflammatory medication like ibuprofen or naproxen to reduce swelling and ease pain. If, after three or four weeks, this treatment method fails, the physician may choose to drain the fluid from the bursa and inject cortisone, a powerful steroidal anti-inflammatory medication to relieve pain and swelling. However, symptoms are likely to return with this approach.
Each patient is unique and their recovery will depend on the treatment method prescribed by the physician. If surgery is deemed necessary for the elbow bursitis, recovery will depend on the severity of the condition and the complexity of the procedure. Full recovery from surgery can take three to four weeks where the affected elbow will be placed in a splint. Once the splint comes off, the individual can return to their prior level of activity.
CALL 911 IMMEDIATELY IF YOU ARE HAVING A MEDICAL EMERGENCY!
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