Do You Have Popeye’s Elbow?

What causes bursitis to develop in the elbow?

Bursitis, the condition that affects joints throughout the body, is most often found in the joints that get the most demand placed on them. Usually, this will be the shoulders, knees, feet, wrists and elbows. Each joint contains sacs of fluid, called bursae, that cushion the joint areas so that moving bones do not damage each other. If something happens to cause these bursae to become irritated or inflamed, the result is pain and swelling.

At the very tip of the elbow is a pointy bone, the olecranon. When the fluid-filled sacs that are between this bone and the skin become swollen, it is called olecranon bursitis, or, more commonly, elbow bursitis. It is also sometimes referred to as “Popeye’s elbow”. This is because of the way it resembles the exaggerated prominence of the famous cartoon sailor’s elbow, which, no doubt, was the result of all that movement required to eat vast amounts of spinach.

Symptoms of Elbow Bursitis

Symptoms of bursitis manifest differently depending upon which joint is affected. In general, however, the most common symptoms of this condition are:

  • Tenderness, usually when touching a particular spot
  • Joint stiffness
  • Aching or pain in a joint area
  • Pain and discomfort often increase at night
  • Swelling, sometimes the area of swelling on the elbow can look like a golf ball
  • Redness
  • Increased pain when moving or using the elbow
  • Pressure on the elbow area causes pain
  • Decreased mobility
  • If infected, there may be pus

What Causes Bursitis to Develop in the Elbow?

While anyone can develop bursitis, like a lot of other similar conditions the likelihood increases with age. Causes include:

  • Trauma – one of the most common reasons for the bursae to swell is from some sort of trauma to the elbow, such as it being hit or from a fall that resulted in landing on it.
  • Pressure – much like repetitive motion injuries, continuous or frequent periods of leaning on the elbow can irritate the bursa and cause inflammation and swelling. This condition is an occupational hazard for those who work in certain fields, like mechanics, plumbers and HVAV technicians.
  • Contributing conditions – certain medical conditions, such as, rheumatoid arthritis, gout and kidney failure increase the risk of developing elbow bursitis.
  • Infection – cuts, bites or scrapes that break the skin and become infected can lead the bursa to becoming swollen.


As long as the bursa in the elbow is not infected, which would require antibiotics, treatment will mainly consist of easing discomfort and avoiding re-injury. Your healthcare professional will likely recommend the following:

  • Rest and icing the area.
  • Elbow protection, possibly using pads or some type of wrap. One of the obstacles to healing with the elbow is how easily it can be re-injured, which is why some sort of protective covering is often suggested.
  • Avoid doing anything that would put any sort of pressure on the elbow. This is fairly easy while it is painful, but as the swelling starts to go down, it becomes important to still pay attention as it is still vulnerable.
  • Pain and anti-inflammatory medications. It is important to read the labels and follow dosage recommendations from your physician.

If these measures do not prove adequate, your doctor may suggest corticosteroid injections, PRP (platelet rich plasma), physical therapy or, in more extreme cases, draining the fluid or even removing the bursa.

At Long Island Spine Rehabilitation Medicine, our physicians are committed to more than just treating your symptoms. We strongly believe that each individual is best served through an integrative treatment plan. We focus on finding the underlying cause and providing non-surgical, evidenced based solutions tailored to your specific condition and needs. If you are experiencing pain in your elbow or other joint or have questions about any other service, we invite you to schedule a consultation by using our convenient online form by clicking here.