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Olecranon Bursitis (Popeye Elbow)

Topic Overview

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 olecranon bursitis?

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 of olecranon bursitis?

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 olecranon bursitis 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?

Treatment for sudden (acute) bursitis may include drainage of excess fluid in the sac with a needle, followed by injections of medicines into the sac to decrease inflammation and promote healing.

Treatment for ongoing (chronic) bursitis focuses on teaching you to avoid leaning on your elbows, protecting your elbows during sports activities with elbow pads, and using anti-inflammatory medicines. Antibiotic medicines may be needed to treat infection, and surgery may be needed to drain or remove (excise) the bursa.

Credits

By Healthwise Staff
William H. Blahd, Jr., MD, FACEP - Emergency Medicine
H. Michael O'Connor, MD - Emergency Medicine
Last Revised February 18, 2013

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