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Massage Today
December, 2006, Vol. 06, Issue 12

Elbow Swelling

By Ben Benjamin, PhD

Question: A great deal of swelling at the olecronon process of the elbow indicates what condition?

Answer: Olecranon bursitis (sometimes called elbow bursitis).

The term bursitis refers to inflammation of a bursa - a fluid-filled, sac-like tissue that provides cushioning between moving structures of the body (particularly around joints) to reduce friction.

The olecranon bursa lies posterior to the point of the elbow. In olecranon bursitis, excess fluid accumulates in this bursa and the back of the elbow becomes swollen and often painful.

There are several possible causes of this condition. It might result from a traumatic accident, such as a fall onto the elbow, or from repeated minor traumas, such as rubbing the elbow against a hard surface while writing. Less frequently, it results from an infection of the bursa. A person with such an infection will have systemic symptoms such as a fever, profuse sweating or chills, and also might have redness at the back of the elbow and a scrape or cut in the skin. In other cases, olecranon bursitis might occur for no apparent reason. Whatever the cause, resting the elbow on a hard surface might aggravate the bursitis and worsen the swelling.

There is no precise test for olecranon bursitis as there is for most other injuries. The most common symptom is visible swelling at the posterior aspect of the elbow. There also might be pain or a slight limitation of movement in flexion or extension, but these symptoms are not always present. Often, this condition resolves on its own. If it doesn't resolve on its own, treatment might include injection therapy, draining the bursa or, in severe cases, surgically removing it. In cases of infection, antibiotics are prescribed as well.

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