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Olecranon Bursitis (Popeye Elbow)

Condition Basics

What is olecranon bursitis?

Bursitis is an inflammation of small sacs of fluid (bursae) that help joints move smoothly. Olecranon bursitis, which affects the olecranon bursa at the back of the elbow, is sometimes called Popeye elbow. This is because the bump that develops at the back of the elbow looks like the cartoon character Popeye's elbow.

What causes it?

There are three general causes of olecranon bursitis:

  • Inflammation, such as from pressure on the bursa or from inflammatory conditions. This is the most common cause of olecranon bursitis.
  • A sudden injury, such as a blow to the elbow, causing bleeding or fluid buildup
  • Infection caused by any of the following:
    • An injury at the site of the bursa
    • An infection in tissue near the bursa that spreads to the bursa
    • A blood-borne infection. This is rare.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms of olecranon bursitis may include:

  • Pain, especially with movement of the elbow or pressure on the elbow.
  • Swelling. One lump may be felt in the back of the affected elbow. The swelling or lump is caused by increased fluid within the bursa and is tender with movement or when touched.
  • Redness, red streaking, warmth, fever, and swollen lymph nodes in the armpit caused by infection.

How is it diagnosed?

Your doctor can likely diagnose olecranon bursitis from a medical history and physical exam. If the swelling is the result of an injury, X-rays may be necessary to determine whether the elbow is fractured. If your doctor is concerned about an infection in your elbow, he or she may drain fluid from the elbow with a needle and have the fluid tested by a lab.

How is olecranon bursitis treated?

Home treatment is often enough to reduce pain and let the bursa heal. Your doctor may suggest physical therapy to strengthen the muscles around your joints.

  • Rest the affected area.
  • Avoid any activity or direct pressure that may cause pain. For example, try not to lean on your elbows on hard surfaces. Consider using chairs that don't have armrests or wearing padding on your elbows.
  • Apply ice or cold packs as soon as you notice pain in your muscles or near a joint. Apply ice 10 to 15 minutes at a time, as often as twice an hour, for 3 days (72 hours). You can try heat, or alternating heat and ice, after the first 72 hours.
  • Use pain relievers. Use nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen or naproxen, to reduce pain and inflammation. NSAIDs come in pills and also in a cream that you rub over the sore area. Acetaminophen (such as Tylenol) can also help with pain. Don't rely on medicine to relieve pain so that you can keep overusing the joint.
  • Do range-of-motion exercises each day. If your bursitis is in or near a joint, gently move the joint through its full range of motion, even during the time that you are resting the joint area. This will prevent stiffness. As the pain goes away, add other exercises to strengthen the muscles around your joint.
  • Avoid tobacco smoke. Smoking delays wound and tissue healing.

If you have severe bursitis, your doctor may use a needle to remove extra fluid from the bursa. You might wear a pressure bandage on the area. Your doctor may also give you a shot of medicine to reduce swelling. Some people need surgery to drain or remove the bursa.

Sometimes the fluid in the bursa can get infected. If this happens, you may need antibiotics.

Bursitis is likely to improve in a few days or weeks if you rest and treat the affected area. But it may return if you don't stretch and strengthen the muscles around the joint and change the way you do some activities.

Credits

Current as of: July 1, 2021

Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review:
William H. Blahd Jr. MD, FACEP - Emergency Medicine
Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine
Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine

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