Student's Elbow (Olecranon Bursitis) - Diagnosis

How is olecranon bursitis diagnosed?

If you have a straightforward case of olecranon bursitis, the doctor may be able to diagnose it without any tests. The swelling is very typical and because the elbow is so close to the skin, it is usually quite easy to feel.

However, other tests are sometimes needed to rule out other causes of elbow swelling, such as infection (septic arthritis), gout or rheumatoid arthritis. Tests which might be needed include blood tests and an ultrasound scan. If you have had a significant injury, an X-ray might be needed to make sure there is no break (fracture).

If infection ('septic olecranon bursitis') is suspected, the fluid in the swelling may be drained (aspirated) by the doctor. This may be done by your GP in the surgery in some cases. The skin is cleaned, then a needle is inserted into the swelling. Some of the fluid is drawn up into a syringe. A sample is then sent to the lab to see which germs (bacteria) are causing the infection. This can then help guide the right treatment for you. The fluid in the sample can also rule out other causes of the swelling, such as gout. There is a small risk of introducing an infection by inserting the needle.

Do I need to see a specialist?

Your GP may often be able to diagnose and treat you without you needing a referral to a specialist. However, if there is doubt about the diagnosis, or if you have an associated condition such as rheumatoid arthritis, you may be referred. Also if your GP is not practised at aspirating these swellings, he or she may refer you to someone with plenty of experience.

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Dr Mary Harding
Peer Reviewer:
Dr John Cox
Document ID:
4604 (v41)
Last Checked:
28 September 2016
Next Review:
28 September 2019

Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. Patient Platform Limited has used all reasonable care in compiling the information but make no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details see our conditions.