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Have you ever felt achy or noticed swelling around your joints? That might be bursitis. Whether you’re dealing with shoulder pain, knee discomfort or any other joint issue, there are ways to relieve pain and restore movement.

Read on to learn more about bursitis, including symptoms, causes, simple treatments and tips for relief.

What is bursitis?

Bursitis is a painful swelling that happens in tiny, fluid-filled sacs called bursae. These sacs are like little pillows that help bones, tendons and muscles move smoothly. 

When a joint is in motion, the bursae act as a liquid coating that moves between bones, muscles, ligaments and tendons to keep them from rubbing together. Bursitis happens when the bursae become irritated or inflamed.

Causes of bursitis

Doing the same movements over and over again (repetitive motions) - like throwing a baseball or heavy lifting at work - can increase your risk for bursitis. Positions that put pressure on your bursae - like kneeling or leaning on your elbows for long periods - can also cause it.

Other less common causes of bursitis include:

  • Infection: Sometimes, bacteria can infect the bursae, causing them to become swollen and painful.
  • Injury or trauma: A sudden bump, fall or other type of injury can damage the bursae.
  • Medical conditions: Certain conditions like rheumatoid arthritis or gout can increase the risk of developing bursitis.

Types of bursitis

There are more than 150 bursae in your body. Common areas where bursitis develops include the shoulder, elbow, hip, knee, feet and buttocks. 

Types of bursitis include:

  • Shoulder bursitis (subacromial bursitis): The bursa in the shoulder gets irritated from overuse or repetitive tasks, such as throwing or reaching. 
  • Elbow bursitis (olecranon bursitis or barfly’s elbow): The bursa at the tip of the elbow gets swollen, usually from leaning on it too much.
  • Hip bursitis (iliopectineal or trochanteric bursitis): The bursa on the outside of the hip gets sore, usually from lots of running or going up stairs.
  • Knee bursitis (prepatellar bursitis or housemaid’s knees): The bursa in front of the kneecap gets swollen, often from kneeling too much.
  • Feet bursitis (Achilles bursitis, metatarsal bursitis or heel bursitis): The bursa near the Achilles tendon, bursae around the toe joints or bursa beneath the heel bone get irritated. 
  • Sitting bone bursitis (ischial bursitis, ischiogluteal bursitis, weaver’s bottom): The bursa in the sit bones (ischium) become irritated from prolonged sitting on hard surfaces or repetitive hip movements, like running or bicycling.

Symptoms of bursitis

If you have bursitis, you may experience one or more of the following symptoms:

  • Pain: You may feel a dull ache or sharp pain in the affected joint.
  • Swelling: The joint may appear swollen or feel tender to the touch.
  • Stiffness: It may be challenging to move the affected joint fully.
  • Warmth: The skin may feel warm to the touch due to increased blood flow to the area.
  • Redness: The skin over the affected joint may appear red.

Visit your health care provider if your pain and swelling don’t improve in a few days, if your bursitis comes back or if you have a fever. 

Diagnosing bursitis

Diagnosing bursitis typically involves a physical exam by your health care provider and a review of your medical history and symptoms. In some cases, imaging tests such as X-rays, ultrasound or MRI may be ordered to rule out other possible causes of your symptoms. 

Your provider may also order a blood test or take a fluid sample from the swelling to check for infection.

What is the best way to treat bursitis?

Bursitis often heals on its own within a week or two. Fortunately, it can often be treated effectively with simple measures such as:

  • Resting the affected joint.
  • Applying ice packs wrapped in a towel to reduce swelling and pain.
  • Applying a heating pad or hot water bottle wrapped in a towel to increase blood flow and relax muscles.
  • Wrapping the joint in a compression bandage.
  • Taking over-the-counter pain medicine such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen.
  • Physical therapy exercises to strengthen the muscles around the joint and improve flexibility.
  • Avoiding activities that worsen symptoms.
  • Taking antibiotics if an infection causes your bursitis.

In some cases, your provider may recommend corticosteroid injections (shots) to reduce inflammation or, rarely, surgery to drain or remove the inflamed bursa. 

Tips to prevent bursitis

While it may not always be possible to prevent bursitis, you can reduce your risk by doing the following:

  • Use proper posture and technique for sports or activities.
  • Avoid repetitive motions that strain the joints.
  • Take regular breaks and switch tasks to prevent overuse injuries.
  • Maintain a healthy weight to reduce stress on your joints.
  • Carry heavy objects using a dolly or wheeled cart instead of carrying them by hand.
  • Use cushions or pads when you kneel or lean on your elbows.
  • Warm up before physical activity (including chores) and stretch afterward to improve flexibility.

We’re here to help

At Banner Health, we’re dedicated to providing you with resources to overcome bursitis and enjoy life to the fullest. Contact us if you have any questions or concerns. We’re here to help you every step of the way.