Frequently Asked Questions About Bursitis

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What is bursitis? That’s the first question that comes to mind when learning about this condition. Bursitis develops when one or more bursa becomes inflamed, causing pain and stiffness in the affected joint. The next question you may ask: What’s a bursa? A bursa is a small sac filled with fluid that cushions your joints and reduces friction. There are more than 150 bursae all over your body. Bursitis most commonly occurs in the shoulders, elbows, knees or hips, but bursitis can develop in nearly any joint. If you have questions about bursitis, you’ll get answers here.

What are the symptoms of bursitis?

Bursitis symptoms are similar to the symptoms of arthritis, although these two conditions are not the same. The most common bursitis symptoms include:

  • Pain and tenderness near the inflamed bursa

  • Stiffness and reduced range of motion

  • Redness and swelling, if the affected bursa is near the surface of the skin

What are bursitis causes and risk factors?

Often the cause of bursitis is not known, but orthopedists have identified some causes. These include repetitive motions in a joint, which is known as an overuse injury. A minor trauma, such as bumping a knee repeatedly or putting pressure on a joint for an extended time, can also cause bursitis. Infection in the bursa can also cause it.

Bursitis risk factors include:

  • Older age

  • Playing sports that involve repetitive motions, such as playing tennis or baseball

  • Doing hobbies involving repetitive motions, such as painting, or hobbies that require pressure on the joints, such as kneeling while gardening

  • Playing an instrument

  • Doing work-related activities, such as installing a tile floor or plumbing

  • Walking improperly (poor mechanics) or having bad posture

  • Having other medical conditions, such as diabetes, obesity or a difference in leg length

How serious is bursitis?

Bursitis will often go away on its own, but it can last weeks at a time or come and go. In the meantime, you can usually treat symptoms at home with rest and over-the-counter pain relievers. If the inflamed bursa doesn’t heal, your doctor may focus on making sure you retain your range of motion and don’t suffer permanent joint damage in addition to treating the symptoms.

Some people may develop chronic bursitis, which can cause permanent disability, such as limited range of motion in nearby joints and weakened muscles. Chronic bursitis is usually caused by overuse injuries that are not corrected or by untreated medical conditions.

What’s the difference between bursitis and arthritis?

The symptoms of these two conditions are very similar, so you may mistake bursitis for arthritis. However, they are different because of the joint structures involved and the source of the pain and inflammation. Bursitis is caused by the inflammation of a bursa, while arthritis can have many different causes, including degenerating cartilage in the joints or an autoimmune response that triggers inflammation.

Bursitis is typically temporary, but arthritis can’t be cured and usually gets progressively worse over time. A doctor can often diagnose bursitis through a physical exam, although he or she may order X-rays or other imaging tests to rule out other conditions.

What are bursitis treatment options?

To treat the inflammation, swelling and pain of bursitis, you need to rest the joint so it can recover. These other treatments can help soothe bursitis symptoms and shorten recovery time:

  • Elevate the affected joint

  • Use snug but not tight compression around the area to help reduce swelling
  • Apply ice or heat therapy

  • Try a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug such as ibuprofen

  • Request a corticosteroid injection from your doctor

  • Immobilize the joint using a splint or brace

  • Visit a physical therapist to improve range of motion and muscle tone

These treatments can be beneficial if the bursa became inflamed due to an overuse injury or minor trauma. However, when bursitis is caused by an infection in the bursa, you may need other treatments, such as:

  • Antibiotics

  • Draining the fluid in the bursa

  • Surgery to remove the infected bursa, although this is rare

How can bursitis be prevented?

To reduce your risk of bursitis, protect your joints while enjoying hobbies or performing job-related tasks. This can include:

  • Using kneeling pads

  • Rolling heavy objects rather than carrying them

  • Resting or alternating between repetitive tasks

  • Exercising to strengthen muscles and to maintain a healthy weight

  • Stretching before exercise

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Dec 19
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