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Bursitis, what is it?

Bursitis, what is it and why does it happen?

Did you know that bursitis is a very common cause of joint related pain and swelling in areas such as the knee and the elbow? There is a large bursa along the bony part of the elbow called the olecranon bursa. while the knee has several bursa along the front with the most commonly known one being the prepatellar bursa.  An inflamed bursa also known as bursitis is a swollen and fluid filled area that resembles a small water balloon along joints like the elbow and knee.  Bursitis can be caused from a number of different things including injury such as bumping your knee into an object or falling on your knee or elbow.  Bursitis can also be due to reactive conditions such as repetitive friction such as if you’re someone who is kneeling a lot for work such as those who lay flooring or carpet.  Reactive bursitis is common at the elbow and can develop simply from sitting and the repeated friction of the elbow rubbing on an office chair armrest or the center console of your car from driving. 

When the bursa becomes inflamed, it may or may not be painful.  Sometimes individuals notice it because of pain bending the knee or elbow.  However, sometimes patients tell me that their friend or family member first noticed it and they have no idea how it started.   Recently, I saw a patient from Portland, Oregon who had developed bursitis of his knee from kneeling for work as he works in an IT type of setting and was constantly on a daily basis kneeling and crawling under desks to install or change out computer related hardware. He also admitted that if he wasn’t kneeling on his knee he was frequently using his knee to move boxes or other objects across the floor that he didn’t want to lift.  His knee from all the kneeling and probably box pushing activity had developed swelling and pain along the front of the knee causing him to now experience pain whenever he knelt and put direct pressure in the area. The pain he experienced was a sharp pain due to the increased pressure on the bursa.  Another recent patient I saw worked in  construction and developed swelling along his posterior elbow after bumping it into a piece of machinery about one week before coming in to be seen.   He had a small abrasion on the elbow and was concerned that maybe the bursa was infected because it was red and kind of warm to the touch and just looked and felt angry to him.  He had tried an elbow sleeve for compression, heat and cold treatments and over the counter medications but nothing was helping.  He felt the bursa was getting bigger especially when he was active at work.  Upon examining him, I was able to reassure him that the bursa was not infected as he could still move his arm fully without pain and we were able to ultrasound the bursa and the fluid looked hypoechoic on ultrasound which is typically a good sign. 

If you suspect that the pain and swelling along your knee or elbow could be due to bursitis, give your sports injury doctor a call.  At Sports Health Northwest, our specialists can help you safely and quickly recover from bursitis.  We can discuss the best medical and interventional treatment options to improve pain and swelling and help you avoid complications like infection of the affected bursa. 


Dr Westerdahl David Westerdahl MD FAAFP RMSK Sports Medicine Physician and owner Sports Health Northwest, Inc.

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