Olecranon Bursitis (Popeye Elbow): Signs and symptoms, Causes, Risks, Complications, Diagnosis, Treatment and Prevention

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Illustration of Olecranon Bursitis

1Overview

olecranon bursitis also called Popeye elbow, is a condition wherein the small sacs of fluid that help the joint move smoothly, become inflamed. These small sacs are called bursae.

If you have had a blow to one of the elbows or spend prolonged periods leaning on the area it could lead to the redness and inflammation of the tip of the elbow. In severe cases, the inflammation could form a lump.

The bursa or bursae occur throughout the body, acting as cushions between body parts like where tendons and muscles glide over bones or in the joints of the hips, knees, elbows, and shoulders. Particularly, the olecranon bursa is the part of the elbow that helps reduce the friction between the skin and the pointy bone in the joint.

If this gets irritated, it could become swollen, leading to pain and tenderness in the area.

2Signs and symptoms

The common signs and symptoms of olecranon bursitis or Popeye elbow include:

  • Pain in the affected area, particularly in the elbow and when moving the elbow
  • Redness, warmth, fever and inflamed lymph nodes (which are signs of infection)
  • Inflammation or the formation of one lump in the back of the affected area.
    The swelling is caused by the accumulation of fluid in the bursa.

3Causes

The most common causes of Popeye elbow include:

Pressure – Too much pressure on the bursa may lead to irritation and swelling. Leaning the elbow against a hard surface for a prolonged period can irritate the bursa. Some jobs are at a higher risk of developing this condition like plumbers and air-conditioning technicians since they lean on their elbow all the time.

Trauma – Aside from too much pressure, trauma or a sudden, hard blow to the elbow can cause the bursa to become inflamed.

Other conditions – Other conditions affecting the joints or the elbow can lead to having olecranon bursitis, which includes gout, rheumatoid arthritis, kidney failure, and other inflammatory diseases.

Infection – Also, the bursa can become infected due to an insect bite, a cut or an abrasion on the elbow area.

4Risk Factors

The risk of developing olecranon bursitis increases with the following factors:

  • Age – Older people are more susceptible to developing musculoskeletal problems like Popeye elbow
  • Occupation – Some jobs make you lean on your elbow for a long time like technicians and plumbers
  • Arthritis – Previous joint problems like arthritis may increase the risk of developing Popeye elbow.

5Complications

Tendon rupture – If the condition is left untreated, it can increase the risk of having tendon rupture, a serious condition that may need surgery.

Tendinosis – Also, if elbow tendonitis is not treated immediately, it might lead to tendinosis may develop, a condition where degenerative changes in the tendon happen, with abnormal new blood vessel growth.

6Diagnosis

A primary care doctor can diagnose Popeye elbow with a medical history and physical examination. If there is chronic and persistent swelling or redness around the joints, fever, and chills, seek medical attention to make sure there isn’t an infection.

First, the doctor will need to take a medical history of the patient, asking questions about the severity of the symptoms, when the symptoms first appeared and the activities the patient is regularly performing. The physical examination will involve the doctor checking for tenderness, redness, inflammation, limited movement of the area affected and muscle weakness.

Imaging tests can also be requested such as an X-ray, to see if there are fractures, CT scan, and MRI scan to check for soft tissue damage.

7Treatment

For any bone, muscle, tendon and ligament injury, here are the four important things to do first:

Lifestyle changes and home remedies

For home remedies, you should remember the acronym RICE, which means rest, ice, compression and elevation to reduce pain and inflammation.

Rest –  As soon as you felt pain during activity, you should rest. Also, avoid activities that can increase pain and swelling. It is the key to tissue healing and a faster recovery.

Ice – As soon as injury or pain happens, you can reduce pain by applying ice to the affected area for up to 20 minutes many times a day. Do not apply the ice pack directly to the skin. Use a thin washcloth or towel before applying it.

Compression – Since swelling may lead to reduced motion, compress the area until the swelling has ceased. Elastic bandages can be used.

Elevation – Elevate the affected area, if it’s located in the lower part of the body.

The treatment for sudden or acute bursitis may include drainage of the excess fluid in the sac with a needle. This can be followed by certain injections of drugs into the sac to decrease swelling and promote healing.

For chronic bursitis, however, the treatment concentrates on helping the patient prevent leaning on the elbows, protecting the joints from trauma during strenuous activities or sports, and taking anti-inflammatory medicines to heal swelling.

Olecranon bursitis exercises are also helpful. These exercises could help promote faster healing and help improve muscle strength. Pay attention to the triceps while performing exercises to help improve flexibility.

Therapy sessions can also help with the improvement of the condition. A Popeye elbow can improve, particularly its inflammation. Soft tissue massage, heat treatment, activity modification and joint mobilization are also helpful measures to reduce inflammation and promote healing.

Since the most common cause of Popeye elbow is repetitive pressure on the bursa.
The condition should not become painful. However, if there is severe pain, redness, fever, and swelling, you should seek medical attention right away because this means that the area is already infected.

8Prevention

To prevent and reduce the risk of developing Popeye elbow, here are the preventive measures:

  • Avoid activities that put extra stress and pressure on the tendons, particularly the elbow area.
  • Avoid leaning on the elbow for prolonged periods
  • Improve your technique in sports activities to make sure there will be no tendon problems.
  • Observe proper body mechanics when lifting, throwing, or working.
  • Stretch before working out or any sports activities
  • Use proper workplace ergonomics
  • Warm up before starting strenuous exercise
  • Perform the intensity of the workout gradually
  • Avoid activities that require prolonged periods of reaching over the head
  • For people performing racket sports, change the racket with a larger head to prevent re-injury.