Practice Plus Group MSK and Diagnostics

Swollen elbow

Swollen elbow, also called olecranon bursitis, is swelling or inflammation in the small, fluid-filled sac (bursa) that cushions the bony point at the back of your elbow (the olecranon).

Swollen elbow is sometimes referred to as ‘student’s elbow’.


What causes swollen elbow?

Olecranon bursitis is typically caused by repeated irritation to the bursa, such as leaning on the elbow when reading or working at a desk.

The condition can also be caused by a one-off injury, such as falling onto your elbow, or by general wear and tear within the joint.


What are the symptoms of swollen elbow?

The most noticeable sign of olecranon bursitis or swollen elbow is an accumulation of fluid at the back of your elbow, which can form a shape like a golf ball.

Other symptoms:

  • The swelling may cause mild discomfort but is often painless.
  • It does not normally restrict the movement of your elbow joint.
  • It may feel hot and appear red, which may mean you have an infection or arthritis.


How is swollen elbow diagnosed?

Your doctor may diagnose olecranon bursitis after discussing your symptoms and examining your elbow. In the case of a suspected infection, a blood test may be required. There is also the possibility that they may wish to extract some fluid with a needle for tests, or refer you for an x-ray to rule out a chipped bone in your elbow.


What are the treatment options for swollen elbow?

Avoid leaning on your elbow or use padding to protect it. It is also best to avoid or reduce activities that involve repetitive bending of your elbow.

Your doctor will probably advise taking anti-inflammatory medication to reduce the inflammation. This might be prescription-only or over-the-counter, such as Ibuprofen.

You may also benefit from using a compression bandage to reduce the swelling.

When resting, try to keep your elbow above the level of your heart. This can help to relieve inflammation. Try not to let your arm hang down by your side.

You could also put an ice pack on your elbow for 10-15 minutes, every three hours. (Do not put ice directly next to skin as it may cause ice burn. Wrap it in a damp tea towel. Remove the pack if irritation increases. Allow the area to return to normal temperature before reapplying the ice.)

Injections and aspiration (removing the fluid with a needle and syringe) are not generally recommended as they increase the risk of infection.

If infection is present, you may be prescribed antibiotics.


What is the prognosis (outlook) for swollen elbow?

If there are no other conditions present, such as arthritis, olecranon bursitis will typically resolve itself within a few weeks, provided that you take steps to treat any infection and to avoid repeating the activity or injury that caused it.

If your symptoms have not improved, make an appointment with your GP.


How can I prevent recurrence of swollen elbow?

Make sure your elbow has fully recovered before resuming activities that may aggravate it. Try to avoid any postures that may have caused the condition originally.

If you must perform repetitive actions with your elbow in sport or at work, try to factor in more time doing something else between bouts of activity.

Icing your elbow after exercise or work can also help to avoid inflammation.

How to get referred

How to get referred

Find out how to get referred to Practice Plus Group MSK & Diagnostics for NHS treatment.