What is a bursa?
A bursa is a small sac that contains a small amount of fluid. The fluid is similar to the fluid in joints (synovial fluid). There are several bursae in the body, including one just over the olecranon. Bursae help to make movement smooth between bones which 'stick out' and the overlying skin. Normally the bursa cannot be felt but when it gets inflamed, it becomes larger so that you can see the bulge over your elbow.
What are the causes of olecranon bursitis?
There are a number of possible causes of olecranon bursitis:
- Mild but repeated injury is thought to be the common cause. For example, people who lean on their elbows a lot cause friction and repeated mild injury over the olecranon. (Fancy names have been given to this condition when the cause is clear. For example, when it occurs in people who study whilst leaning on their elbows on a desk, it is called 'student's elbow'. Other names include 'miner's elbow', 'plumber's elbow', etc, when the job involves crawling a lot using elbows.)
- Repeated elbow movements may be a cause in certain athletes. For example, those whose sports involve throwing by raising the arm above the head (such as cricket or baseball players, javelin throwers) or weightlifters.
- One-off injury such as a blow to the back of the elbow may set off inflammation.
- Arthritis. One or more bursae may become inflamed as part of a generalised arthritis. (Note: most cases of olecranon bursitis are not associated with arthritis.) Types of arthritis which can be associated with bursitis include rheumatoid arthritis, gout and ankylosing spondylitis.
- Infection of a bursa. This may occur if there is a cut in the skin over a bursa, which allows in germs (bacteria). Some illnesses may make infection more likely - for example, diabetes or conditions where the immune system does not work as well as normal. There is not always an obvious cause for the infection.
- Unknown (idiopathic). Many cases occur for no apparent reason. However, it is possible that some of these are due to a mild injury that has been forgotten.
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