Aspiration of the Olecranon Bursa

This outpatient procedure relieves pain and swelling in the elbow caused by bursitis, or inflammation of the bursa. The bursa is a fluid-filled sac between the skin and bones of the elbow.



The olecranon bursa is located between the skin and the bone at the back of the elbow, known as the olecranon. The bursa is a small, thin sac that provides cushioning to the bones, tendons and ligaments of the joint. If the bursa becomes irritated or inflamed, fluid begins to accumulate within it, leading to the development of olecranon bursitis.

Olecranon bursitis usually causes a great deal of pain and swelling, and may result in limited motion of the elbow joint. If it is suspected that bursitis is occurring as a result of an infection, aspiration of the olecranon bursa may be necessary. Aspiration of the olecranon bursa is a nonsurgical procedure that involves removing the fluid from the bursa with a needle. An aspiration can provide relief of symptoms, and will help the doctor to determine exactly what is causing pain around the elbow.

Causes of Olecranon Bursitis

Olecranon bursitis may develop due to a variety of factors. People employed as plumbers or heating and air conditioning technicians are especially vulnerable to developing this condition, since these occupations often require placing pressure on the elbows in tight spaces for long periods of time. Other common causes of olecranon bursitis include a direct injury or trauma to the elbow, existing medical conditions such as gout or rheumatoid arthritis and infections produced by bacteria introduced to the bursa through a skin wound.

Symptoms of Olecranon Bursitis

Olecranon bursitis is typically characterized by symptoms that include:

  • Pain that becomes worse upon bending or touching the elbow
  • Swelling
  • Impaired mobility of the elbow
  • Red skin that feels warm to the touch

If the olecranon bursitis was caused by an infection, the infection may spread to other areas of the arm as well as into the bloodstream. This can result in serious illness and requires immediate medical attention.

Diagnosis of Olecranon Bursitis

After taking a medical history and discussing the symptoms the patient has been experiencing, the patient's arm and elbow will be examined. An imaging test such as an X-ray may be performed to rule out other causes of inflammation or detect a bone spur, which may develop at the tip of the elbow bone in patients who have had recurring olecranon bursitis.

The Aspiration of the Olecranon Bursa Procedure

If the olecranon bursitis has been caused by an infection, an aspiration of the bursa will likely be recommended. Typically performed in the doctor's office, aspiration of the olecranon bursa involves withdrawing fluid from the bursa with a needle. The removal of fluid from the bursa will help relieve painful symptoms, as well as provide a sample that can be examined in a laboratory for the presence of bacteria in order to establish the source of the infection. The type of bacteria found will help determine the particular antibiotic to be prescribed.

Once the fluid has been successfully aspirated from the olecranon bursa, an injection of corticosteroids may be administered to help diminish inflammation in the elbow. If the aspiration shows that the olecranon bursitis is not the result of an infection, treatment may involve wearing an elbow pad to cushion the affected area, avoiding activities that place pressure on the swollen elbow or taking oral anti-inflammatory medications.

Following the aspiration, applications of ice to the elbow, resting the affected arm and use of anti-inflammatory medications are recommended to promote healing. Since olecranon bursitis can recur and even become a chronic condition, it is important for susceptible patients to protect the elbow and reduce the frequency of activities that put stress on the elbow in the future.

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