Elbow Bursitis Pain? Try These Exercises and Treatments from Hinge Health Physical Therapists

Pain from elbow bursitis can get in the way of your usual activities, but it doesn’t have to. These simple elbow and arm exercises can help you get relief.

Published Date: Sep 12, 2023
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It’s called “baker’s elbow,” “student’s elbow,” or “Popeye elbow.” (It’s called so many things that it’s saying something about how common this condition can be.) And if you’ve ever had elbow bursitis, you know how painful it can be. Your elbow feels stiff and swollen, it may hurt to lean on it, and it may even make sleeping uncomfortable.

Elbow bursitis is usually harmless and gets better with time. But when you have it, and have a puffy, uncomfortable elbow, it may seem scary to move. However, movement is key to healing, says Laura Reising, PT, DPT, a physical therapist at Hinge Health. Here you’ll learn how elbow bursitis happens and ways to move beyond any discomfort you have.

Our Hinge Health Experts

Laura Reising, PT, DPT
Physical Therapist
Dr. Reising is a Hinge Health physical therapist and board-certified orthopedic specialist with over 10 years of experience. She specializes in performing arts medicine.
Jonathan Lee, MD, MBA
Orthopedic Surgeon and Medical Reviewer
Dr. Lee is a board-certified orthopedic surgeon and an Associate Medical Director at Hinge Health.
Dylan Peterson, PT, DPT
Physical Therapist and Clinical Reviewer
Dr. Peterson is a Hinge Health physical therapist who focuses on developing clinical exercise therapy programs and member education.

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What Is Elbow Bursitis?

Elbow bursitis is inflammation of a bursa, a thin, fluid-filled sac located right at the bony tip of your elbow (also called your olecranon). “Its job is to act as a cushion between your skin, bone, and soft tissue,” explains Dr. Reising. Normally, this bursa is flat. But when it’s irritated, fluid can build up.

Other joints in your body, like your shoulder, hip and even your knee, can also develop bursitis.

Elbow bursitis is different from another common condition — tennis elbow — that can also cause pain. While elbow bursitis is due to inflammation around the elbow bursa, tennis elbow happens when certain tendons near your elbow are irritated.

Symptoms of Elbow Bursitis

The first sign of elbow bursitis is often swelling. But since the back of your elbow isn’t something you probably look at regularly, you may not notice it right away. “There’s usually some limitation in motion — people report that it’s hard to bend, or fully straighten, more so than with other injuries like tennis elbow,” says Dr. Reising. It often gets worse with prolonged computer work, since your elbows are usually bent at a 90-degree angle.

If you have elbow bursitis, you may naturally start to avoid activities that cause you pain. But movement is medicine for your elbow. 

Laura Reising, PT, DPT
Motion can actually decrease pain because it prevents your elbow joint from stiffening. You want to keep fluid moving in your joint and maximize flexibility while you give yourself time for the inflammation to decrease.

What Causes Elbow Bursitis?

There are a few reasons you might develop elbow bursitis. They include:

Trauma. If you fall on your elbow or hit it very hard, your bursa can produce excess fluid and swell.

Prolonged pressure. If you lean on your elbow for a long period of time on a hard surface like your desk, your bursa can swell. This usually develops gradually. It’s also more common in certain occupations, like plumbers who often have to crawl on their knees and rest on their elbows, according to the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons. It can also develop if you move your elbow back and forth a lot — say, if you’re a musician.

Certain medical conditions. Inflammatory forms of arthritis like rheumatoid arthritis, psoriatic arthritis, and gout are all associated with elbow bursitis.

Infection. If you’ve cut or scraped your elbow, bacteria can get inside the bursa sac and cause infection.

Elbow bursitis is most common in men ages 30 to 60 and among those who do activities like plumbing, gardening, mechanics, and construction work for a living. 

But even if you're at a higher risk of developing elbow bursitis, know that it's not inevitable and don’t need to deal with pain or discomfort forever if you do develop it. There are always steps you can take to manage your symptoms.

Treatment: What You Can Do to Relieve the Pain

Most cases of elbow bursitis can be safely treated at home. Some things to try:

Activity changes. While your elbow heals, you don’t need to take a break from your daily activities, but do listen to your body and go easy if that’s what you need. But you’ll want to keep your elbows active: “Stretching becomes very important, to help keep muscles and ligaments loose, decrease pain, and improve mobility,” says Dr. Reising. She recommends that you frequently bend and straighten your arm during the day, to encourage blood flow to the area and keep it limber.

Over-the-counter (OTC) medication. Pain relievers such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), naproxen (Aleve), and acetaminophen (Tylenol) can be helpful for elbow bursitis pain. It’s important to make sure that you are safely able to take these medications, based on your medical history.

Ice. It can help relieve inflammation and swelling from your elbow bursitis, says Dr. Reising. Apply an ice pack or cold compress several times a day, for no more than 20 minutes at a time.

In the past, some doctors would treat elbow bursitis initially with steroid injections. But a 2021 review published in the Journal of Hand Surgery recommends against it, since it carries side effects like increased risk of infection. Very rarely, your elbow bursitis will require surgery.

If your elbow bursitis is accompanied by symptoms like fever, redness, and feels warm, see your doctor right away, stresses Dr. Reising. You may have a condition called septic bursitis, where the fluid in your bursae sac becomes infected. It accounts for about a third of all bursitis cases and requires immediate treatment.

Exercises for Prevention and Recovery

Get 100+ similar exercises for free

  • Wrist Extensors Stretch
  • Elbow Hang
  • Triceps Stretch

Hinge Health physical therapists often recommend these exercises for people who are dealing with elbow issues like bursitis. Regular arm and wrist exercises and stretches won’t just treat bursitis — they can also help prevent the condition from recurring.

The information contained in these videos is intended to be used for educational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice or treatment for any specific condition. Hinge Health is not your healthcare provider and is not responsible for any injury sustained or exacerbated by your use of or participation in these exercises. Please consult with your healthcare provider with any questions you may have about your medical condition or treatment.

PT Tip: Rejig Your Desk Chair

“One of the first questions I ask my patients with elbow bursitis is how they sit at work,” says Dr. Reising. If you find that you naturally lean on your elbows for a long period of time at work, Dr. Reising suggests that you remove your arm rests. And try changing positions throughout the day.

How Hinge Health Can Help You

If you have joint or muscle pain that makes it hard to move, you can get the relief you’ve been looking for with Hinge Health’s online exercise therapy program. 

The best part: You don’t have to leave your home because our program is digital. That means you can easily get the care you need through our app, when and where it works for you.  

Through our program, you’ll have access to therapeutic exercises and stretches for your condition. Additionally, you’ll have a personal care team to guide, support, and tailor our program to you. 

See if you qualify for Hinge Health and confirm free coverage through your employer or benefit plan here.

This article and its contents are provided for educational and informational purposes only and do not constitute medical advice or professional services specific to you or your medical condition.

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  1. Todd, D. J. (2022, July 27). Bursitis — an Overview of Clinical Manifestations, Diagnosis, and Management. UpToDate. https://medilib.ir/uptodate/show/7756 

  2. Baumbach, S. F., Lobo, C. M., Badyine, I., Mutschler, W., & Kanz, K.-G. (2013). Prepatellar and olecranon bursitis: literature review and development of a treatment algorithm. Archives of Orthopaedic and Trauma Surgery, 134(3), 359–370. doi:10.1007/s00402-013-1882-7

  3. Pangia, J., & Rizvi, T. J. (2023, June 12). Olecranon Bursitis. StatPearls Publishing. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK470291/ 

  4. Nchinda, N. N., & Wolf, J. M. (2021). Clinical Management of Olecranon Bursitis: A Review. The Journal of Hand Surgery, 46(6), 501-506. doi:10.1016/j.jhsa.2021.02.006