The term bursitis refers to inflammation and swelling of the bursa, a sac-like structure that forms under the skin to prevent two surfaces from rubbing together and causing damage.
What is a bursa?
Bursae usually occur over joints, particularly over friction and pressure points. The bursa provides a cushion between tissues such as the bones, muscles and tendons that surround a joint. This limits friction, distributing the stress of the joint movement and allowing it to move smoothly through a range of positions.
What happens in bursitis?
Bursitis refers to when a bursa becomes inflamed, usually through injury or repetitive movements. Athletes, for example, are more at risk of developing bursitis than the average person, as are gardeners or carpet fitters who repeatedly kneel in order to carry out their work. Although any bursa can be affected, the condition usually involves the ankle, elbow, knee or hip. Bursitis may also be caused by infection or occur as a secondary condition to other illnesses such as rheumatoid arthritis or gout.
The main symptoms of bursitis are pain, stiffness and swelling of the inflamed bursa. The symptoms usually resolve after a few weeks of resting the affected joint and taking pain relief medication.
Diagnosis and treatment
A diagnosis of bursitis is usually made based on medical history and a physical examination of the joint. X-rays cannot be used to diagnose the condition, but may be used to exclude other potential causes of the pain. Magnetic resonance imaging or ultrasound scans can help to confirm a diagnosis.
Bursitis can usually be treated at home by resting the joint, applying an ice pack and taking NSAIDs (non steroidal anti-inflammatory agents like Ibuprofen) to relieve pain and swelling. Ice is usually not helpful for chronic cases. Topical or skin ointments containing NSAIDs or capsaicin may also be used.
To prevent another episode of bursitis occurring, taking precautions such as wearing pads when kneeling or warming up before exercise can be helpful.
Reviewed by Sally Robertson, BSc