MSD Manual

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Deepan S. Dalal

, MD, MPH, Brown University

Reviewed/Revised Mar 2024
Topic Resources

Bursitis is painful inflammation of a bursa (a flat, fluid-filled sac that provides cushioning where skin, muscles, tendons, and ligaments rub over bones).

  • Movement is usually painful, and bursae near the skin may become swollen and tender.

  • Pain around bursae suggests the diagnosis, but sometimes analysis of fluid removed from a bursa or imaging tests are needed.

  • Rest followed by physical therapy, splinting, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, and sometimes corticosteroid injections usually relieve symptoms.

A bursa normally contains a small amount of fluid, which provides cushioning. Bursae reduce friction and prevent the wear and tear that can occur when one structure rubs over the other. Some bursae are located just beneath the skin (superficial bursae). Others are located under muscles and tendons (deep bursae). If injured or overused, a bursa may become inflamed, and extra fluid may collect in it.

Bursitis is usually caused by

  • Irritation from unusual use or overuse

The shoulder is most susceptible to bursitis, but bursae in the elbows, hips (trochanteric bursitis), pelvis, knees, toes, and heels (Achilles tendon bursitis Achilles Tendon Bursitis Achilles tendon bursitis is inflammation of the fluid-filled sac (bursa) located either between the skin of the back of the heel and the Achilles tendon (called posterior Achilles tendon bursitis)... read more ) are commonly affected. People with bursitis of the shoulder usually also have inflammation of tendons around the shoulder (rotator cuff tendinitis Rotator Cuff Tendinitis Tendinitis is inflammation of a tendon. Tenosynovitis is tendinitis accompanied by inflammation of the protective covering around the tendon (tendon sheath). The cause is not always known. Tendons... read more —the tendons and other structures that move, rotate, and hold the shoulder in place are called the rotator cuff).

Symptoms of Bursitis

Bursitis usually causes pain and tends to limit movement, but the specific symptoms depend on the location of the inflamed bursa. For example, when a bursa in the shoulder becomes inflamed, raising the arm out from the side of the body (as when putting on a jacket) is painful and difficult. However, bursitis in the elbow may cause swelling but little or no discomfort or limited movement.

Acute bursitis develops over hours or days. The inflamed area is usually painful when moved or touched. The skin over bursae located near the surface, such as those near the knee and elbow, may appear red and swollen. Acute bursitis that is caused by an infection or gout Gout Gout is a disorder in which deposits of uric acid crystals accumulate in the joints because of high blood levels of uric acid (hyperuricemia). The accumulations of crystals cause flares (attacks)... read more Gout may be particularly painful, and the affected area may be red and warm.

Chronic bursitis may result from repeated or persistent bouts of acute bursitis or repeated injuries. Sometimes the walls of the bursa become thick. If damaged bursae are subjected to unusual exercise or strain, inflammation tends to worsen. Long-standing pain and swelling can limit movement, making muscles weak. Flare-ups of chronic bursitis may last several months and may return frequently.

Diagnosis of Bursitis

  • A doctor's evaluation

  • Sometimes examination of bursa fluid

  • Sometimes imaging tests

A doctor suspects bursitis if the area around a superficial bursa is sore when touched or when certain joint movements that move or put pressure on deep bursae are painful.

If a superficial bursa, particularly at the knee or elbow, is noticeably swollen, a doctor may remove a sample of fluid from the bursa with a needle. The sample is tested for causes of the inflammation, such as an infection or gout Gout Gout is a disorder in which deposits of uric acid crystals accumulate in the joints because of high blood levels of uric acid (hyperuricemia). The accumulations of crystals cause flares (attacks)... read more Gout .

X-rays X-Rays X-rays are a type of medical imaging that use very low-dose radiation waves to take pictures of bones and soft tissues. X-rays may be used alone (conventional x-ray imaging) or combined with... read more are usually done if bursitis does not get better with treatment or keeps coming back, or if the doctor suspects a problem in an underlying joint such as arthritis.

Treatment of Bursitis

  • Pain relievers, anti-inflammatory medications, and rest

  • Treatment of any gout or infection

  • Sometimes injections of corticosteroids

Acute bursitis, if not caused by an infection, is usually treated with the following:

Occasionally, stronger pain relievers are needed. Often a doctor may inject a local anesthetic and a corticosteroid directly into the bursa, particularly if the shoulder is affected. This treatment frequently provides relief a few days after the injection. The injection may have to be repeated after a few months. Removing the fluid with a needle also may help reduce pain.

People who have severe acute bursitis are occasionally given a corticosteroid, such as prednisone, by mouth for a few days. As the pain subsides, people can do specific exercises to increase the joint’s range of motion.

Chronic bursitis, if not caused by an infection, is treated in a similar way, although rest and immobilization are less likely to help. Rarely, surgery is done to remove the bursa.

Infected bursae must be drained, and appropriate antibiotics, often against Staphylococcus aureus, are given.

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