Treating Swollen Elbow

Olecranon bursitis or "swollen elbow" is a painful condition that commonly affects athletes. Learn how to treat it the right way and when to see a doctor.

Blake Griffin

Olecranon bursitis is a condition characterized by redness and swelling around the boney part of the elbow. Also referred to as "swollen elbow," it often causes painful inflammation and can limit the joint's range of motion.

Blake Griffin elbow

Notice the droopiness and swelling along the bone line of Blake Griffin's elbow.

Common Causes

The causes of swollen elbow vary. Some distensions can be attributed to overuse or injury, while others are caused by underlying health conditions. (See How to Prevent Repetitive Strain Injuries.)


The elbow is susceptible to injury during sports activities. The elbow's underlying soft tissue and tendons can suffer damage or get overstretched, resulting in a swollen elbow.

If a bone is dislocated or fractured because of a traumatic injury, inflammation will occur in the area.


There are many different types of arthritis, all of which cause some level of joint pain and mobility issues. Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disorder that causes pain and swelling around joints, including the elbow. In gouty arthritis, the painful condition arises due to uric acid buildup in the joint. (See The Powerful Health Benefits of Turmeric.)


Tendons connect muscles to bones. When they get irritated and inflamed, the condition is called tendinitis. Tendinitis usually results from repetitive stress on the joint during movement. Golfer's elbow and tennis elbow are two forms that affect the elbow. In tennis elbow, the outer part is inflamed, and in golfer's elbow the inner side becomes swollen. (See Treating Tennis Elbow: Pain Relief Techniques.)


Bursae are small fluid-filled sacs that act as cushions between bones and tendons. In bursitis, the bursa swell up and fill with excess fluid, which leads to swollen elbow. The main cause of bursitis is repetitive movement.

Other Causes

  • Bacterial or viral infection in the joint, also known as septic arthritis
  • Tumor growth
  • Nerve damage
  • Connective tissue diseases that cause skin inflammation
  • In rare cases, diabetes, drug abuse and side effects of certain medicines

What to Do

Do not massage the swollen part of an elbow. Doing so may harm the adjoining tissue and lead to permanent damage.

After the swelling subsides, avoid leaning on your elbow. Any extra weight can lead to swelling.


Give the elbow a sufficient amount of time to rest. This will ease pressure on the joint, and the swelling may subside without treatment. If you are unable to rest the elbow, consider a brace to keep it immobile.

Application of ice can have a soothing effect. Wrap the ice cubes in a pack and place it over the inflamed area for 15 minutes. Take a break and reapply after an hour or so. Repeat the application a number of times throughout the day. (See Recover Faster: Simple Cold Therapy Techniques.)

Anti-inflammatory medicines are usually recommended to relieve annoying symptoms. However, prolonged use can have adverse effects on health.

See a doctor

A doctor will know the best course of action to take based on the type of injury. Oftentimes pain and mobility issues can be alleviated by following the resting guidelines above, along with some physical therapy. However, if the problem is severe, surgery may be the best course of action.

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