Bursitis of the olecranone

Olecranon bursitis is a condition where the bursa covering the olecranon process gets inflamed in the proximal area of the elbow. The surface location of the bursa between the elbow and skin may get inflamed due to various processes – mainly either a sudden or repetitive injury. The inflammation may also be due to an infection, in which case it’s called septic bursitis. Two-thirds of cases are non-infection-related. Even so, this type of bursitis is less frequent.

In spite of this, the olecranon bursa usually provides a mechanism where the skin may slide smoothly along the olecranon process in order to prevent tearing of the tissue.

This may be caused by sharp injuries (trauma) during sports which damage the rear end of the elbow, e.g. falling on a hard surface, etc.

Other common non-sports-related causes include repetitive microtraumas such as constant rubbing of the elbow on a table while writing. Such trauma or smaller, repetitive injuries lead to bleeding of the bursa or release of inflammatory mediators. People in certain professions who have to crawl around on the floor in narrow spaces and lean on their elbows, such as plumbers or heating/aircon technicians are particularly at risk. This may also be a side effect of Sunitinib, which is used to treat patients with renal cell carcinoma.

The bursa is a part of the body which two other parts of the body to move smoothly together (outside the joint). It’s a sac made of flexible tissue. It occurs throughout the body where the skin, muscles and tendons glide along the bone and which become mixed in with a small amount of liquid inside, which helps to reduce the rubbing from the gliding parts.

The olecranon bursa is located between the tip of the elbow (called the olecranon) and the upper layer of the skin. The bursa helps the elbow stretch and straighten out under the skin, but when it gets irritated the sac is filled with liquid, making the elbow tip swell.

Patients usually complain of swelling at the rear end of the elbow. Sometimes the swelling doesn’t cause any pain.

Any pressure such as pressing the elbow against something or rubbing it against a table while writing with the ipsilateral hand often make the pain worse.
Chronically recurrent swelling isn’t usually painful.

Typical symptoms of olecranon bursitis are the frequent additional swelling of the affected elbow, as it sticks outwards more than usual.

It’s possible that the patient will complain of isolated trauma or a repetitive microtrauma. At the beginning it may be sudden when following an infection or a sudden injury. When olecranon bursitis is secondary vis-à-vis the chronic irritation, symptoms will appear more gradually.