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What Is Bursitis?

Bursitis is a condition that causes inflammation of the bursae (singular bursa), which are thin, fluid-filled sacs that cushion tissue near joints such as muscles, tendons, ligaments and cartilage. The bursae lie between bone and other tissue and help prevent friction near a joint. There are more than 150 bursae in the human body.

Bursitis can appear quickly (acute bursitis) or develop gradually (chronic bursitis). Acute bursitis is usually the result of an injury or infection, whereas chronic bursitis is more likely to be an overuse injury.

Bursitis is most common in the:

  • Ankles
  • Elbows
  • Hips
  • Knees
  • Shoulders
  • Wrists

Causes and Risk Factors

Bursitis has a number of potential causes. It is most commonly an overuse injury. People who make repetitive movements as part of activities, sports or jobs are at the greatest risk for bursitis. Some activities that increase the risk of bursitis include:

  • Carpentry
  • Gardening
  • Golf
  • Painting
  • Tennis
  • Weight lifting

Injury or infection can also cause bursitis, and sometimes the cause is unknown. Older age increases the likelihood of developing bursitis. Certain health conditions can also increase the risk of developing bursitis and include:


Bursitis is generally a painful condition, but some patients experience painless swelling if it involves the knee or elbow. The joint near the inflamed bursa may ache, be stiff and appear swollen and red.


It can be difficult to tell the difference between bursitis and another condition because it shares symptoms with a number of other causes of pain, such as some forms of tendinopathy and some forms of arthritis.

Doctors will generally start with a physical examination and a medical history of the patient. In the medical history they will look for evidence of likely causes, such as certain jobs, activities or health conditions. During a physical exam, they will be looking for signs and symptoms of bursitis such as swelling and redness around the area of pain.

Some forms of imaging may be helpful in diagnosing bursitis. X-rays do not show soft tissue such as bursae, but may be useful in ruling out other sources of pain. Magnetic resonance imaging and musculoskeletal ultrasound may detect problems with the bursae.


Bursitis can usually be treated without surgery. The first step is the RICE protocol: rest, ice, compression and elevation. If the bursitis is caused by an infection, a doctor will prescribe antibiotics.

Other treatment methods can include:

  • Corticosteroid injections, which are powerful anti-inflammatories that may reduce irritation and pain symptoms
  • Physical therapy to strengthen the surrounding muscles, which can help alleviate pain and prevent bursitis from recurring

If these methods prove ineffective, more invasive treatments may be needed. Most of the time a surgeon will simply drain the affected bursa. However, in severe cases a doctor may remove the bursa entirely.

If you are in pain and suspect you have bursitis, request an appointment with one of our specialists. We can diagnose the nature of your pain and suggest a treatment plan that works for you and your unique situation.

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