The olecranon bursa is the top part of the ulna bone in the lower arm, that forms the bony area at the back of the elbow. This is the area that supports the arm when elbows are leaned on a table. A bursa is a fluid filled sac that provides cushioning and lubrication at a joint.
There are several bursae in the body, including one over the elbow joint which decreases the friction between the bones and overlying skin.
Bursitis is inflammation of the bursa and the bursa at the back of the elbow over the olecranon is the most common bursa to become inflamed, causing swelling, fluid build-up and pain. Bursitis can also occur in the heel, hip, shoulder and knee.
What Causes Olecranon Bursitis?
Mild but repetitive injury and use is the most common cause of olecranon bursitis. This condition is also called “student’s elbow” because it often occurs in students who rest their elbows on a desk or armchair while studying or typing.
Other names include “plumber’s elbow” and “miner’s elbow,” as this injury often incurred in jobs that involve crawling or resting the elbow while working.
An injury or blow to the back of the elbow can also cause inflammation. This can occur during falls or in contact sports such as rugby and football. Infections can also seep into the bursa if the skin over the elbow is cut or scraped.
Though this cause is less common than others, arthritis can cause pain and inflammation in the olecranon bursa and other bursae of the body.
Most Cases Cause Mild Elbow Pain or Swelling
Normally a bursa cannot be seen or felt. If the olecranon bursa becomes inflamed it appears thickened and swollen and is visible over the back of the elbow. The bursa may also fill with fluid and become cyst-like or look like a round ball protruding from the back of the elbow.
Most cases of olecranon bursitis do not cause significant pain and do not affect the movement of the elbow. In cases due to infections or arthritis, more pain, redness and tenderness is usually felt.
Treatment for Olecranon Bursitis
Most cases of olecranon bursitis disappear on their own, though a cold compress can decrease any discomfort. An anti-inflammatory medication such as ibuprofen, naproxen or diclofenac may be prescribed by a doctor to reduce inflammation and swelling in more severe cases.
Inflammation can also be reduced with steroidal injections and fluid building can be drained by a doctor using aspiration. Taping the elbow tightly after helps to prevent fluid from building up again.
If there is also an infection, an antibiotic may be needed to clear it up. Olecranon bursitis can be prevented by wearing elbow pads when playing sports or working in jobs that involve putting pressure on this area.