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Bursitis - causes, symptoms, treatment

Bursitis is the painful inflammation of a bursa - a fluid filled sack that cushions joint movement. Bursitis most commonly affects the shoulder bursae but is also common in the other major bursae located near the hips, elbows, knees and heels.
Common symptoms include pain and swelling, arising from a range of causes such as strenuous physical activity and injury.  Treatment typically involves resting the affected joint and preventing further aggravation.

What are bursae?

Bursae (singular = bursa) are small, fluid filled sacs found in areas of the body that are subject to movement and friction. Bursae contain a small amount of synovial fluid - a transparent lubricating fluid - and act to cushion the movement between the bones, tendons and muscles near the joints.
Bursitis can occur in any of the more than 150 bursae throughout the body.  “Students elbow” and “Housemaid’s knee” are colloquial terms used to describe two common forms of bursitis.


Bursitis 1


Signs and symptoms

Common symptoms include: 

  • Tenderness or pain
  • Heat
  • Redness
  • Swelling
  • Stiffness
  • Restricted movement.
The tenderness or pain caused by bursitis may be worse in the mornings and after periods of exercise or strenuous activity. 


Bursitis can occur for a variety of reasons, including: 

  • Strenuous or repeated physical activity
  • Injury or trauma
  • Infection
  • Underlying rheumatic conditions such as pseudogout and gout
  • Inflammatory disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis and systemic lupus erythematosus.
Repetitive motions or positions that can irritate the bursae around a joint include frequent and/or prolonged kneeling and leaning on one's elbows.
Bursitis caused by infection (septic bursitis) is uncommon. Infection may be introduced as a result of a break or puncture in the overlying skin. Rarely, bacteria circulating in the blood can infect a chronically inflamed bursa.  Occasionally bursitis can occur for no known reason.
Chronic (long-term) bursitis that is left untreated can result in a build-up of calcium deposits (calcific bursitis) in the soft tissues, resulting in permanent loss of movement to the area. 


A doctor may undertake the following to diagnose bursitis: 

  • Physical examination and full medical history
  • X-rays
  • Ultrasound scanning
  • Blood tests
  • Taking a sample of the fluid in the affected bursae to rule out infection or underlying conditions. 


The treatment of bursitis will depend on whether or not there is infection present. In cases where there is no infection (aseptic bursitis) treatment will focus on reducing inflammation, including: 

  • Ice compresses applied to the area to reduce swelling and discomfort
  • Resting the affected area (it may be necessary to restrict or stop the activity that has caused the bursitis)
  • Wearing a support on the injured joint eg: a sling for shoulder or elbow bursitis
  • Anti-inflammatory pain relieving medications eg: ibuprofen, naproxen
  • Cortisone (corticosteroid) injections into the affected area
  • Occasionally, the fluid may need to be aspirated (removed using a needle and syringe) from the affected bursa to relieve pressure. This may need to be done more than once
  • Weight loss may be recommended in some cases in order to help to relieve pressure on the affected joint(s)
  • Physical therapy or exercises to strengthen the muscles around the affected joint.
Some people find alternative therapies such as acupuncture, chiropractic and naturopathy effective in relieving the pain associated with the condition.
When infection is present (septic bursitis) antibiotics may need to be given. In severe cases, this may involve hospitalization for the antibiotics to be given intravenously (through a drip into a vein).
In severe, chronic cases, surgical removal of the damaged bursa (bursectomy) may be necessary.  


The risk and severity of flare-ups of bursitis can be reduced by changing the way that certain tasks are performed, for example:

  • Using kneeling pads for jobs or hobbies that require a lot of kneeling
  • Bending the knees when lifting something, which will reduce stress on the bursae of the hips
  • Wheeling rather than carrying heavy loads, which will reduce stress on the bursae of the shoulders
  • Taking frequent breaks from repetitive tasks
  • Maintaining a healthy weight to reduce stress on the joints
  • Exercising to strengthen muscles (which can help to protect affected joints)
  • Warming up and stretching before strenuous activities to prevent joint injury.


O’Toole, M.T. (Ed.) (2013). Bursitis. Mosby’s Dictionary of Medicine, Nursing & Health Professions (9th ed.). St Louis, MI: Elsevier Mosby.
Lohr, K.M. (2016). Bursitis (Web page). Medscape Drugs and Diseases. New York, NY: WebMD LLC. [Accessed: 27/06/17]
Mayo Clinic (2014). Bursitis (Web Page). Rochester, NY: Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. [Accessed: 26/06/17]
Last Reviewed – June 2017 


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