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Bursitis of the Elbow: Care Instructions

Your Care Instructions

Bursitis is pain and swelling of the bursae. These are sacs of fluid that help your joints move smoothly. Olecranon bursitis is a type of bursitis that affects the back of the elbow. This is sometimes called Popeye elbow because the bump that develops looks like the cartoon character Popeye's elbow.

Injury, overuse, or prolonged pressure on your elbow can cause this form of bursitis. Sometimes it happens when people have arthritis. It also can occur for unknown reasons.

Treatment may include draining fluid from the bursa with a needle. If your doctor thought there was infection, he or she may have prescribed antibiotics. You also may get shots of medicine into the bursa to help the swelling go down. Your elbow should get better in a few days or weeks.

Follow-up care is a key part of your treatment and safety. Be sure to make and go to all appointments, and call your doctor or nurse advice line (811 in most provinces and territories) if you are having problems. It's also a good idea to know your test results and keep a list of the medicines you take.

How can you care for yourself at home?

  • Take pain medicines exactly as directed.
    • If the doctor gave you a prescription medicine for pain, take it as prescribed.
    • If you are not taking a prescription pain medicine, ask your doctor if you can take an over-the-counter medicine.
    • Do not take two or more pain medicines at the same time unless the doctor told you to. Many pain medicines have acetaminophen, which is Tylenol. Too much acetaminophen (Tylenol) can be harmful.
  • If your doctor prescribed antibiotics, take them as directed. Do not stop taking them just because you feel better. You need to take the full course of antibiotics.
  • If your doctor gave you a sling, an elastic bandage, or a compression sleeve, wear it exactly as instructed.
  • Put ice or a cold pack on your elbow for 10 to 20 minutes at a time. Try to do this every 1 to 2 hours for the next 3 days (when you are awake) or until the swelling goes down. Put a thin cloth between the ice and your skin.
  • After 3 days, you can try heat, or alternate heat and ice.
  • Rest your elbow. Try to stop or reduce any activity that causes pain.
  • Wear elbow pads during physical activity to prevent injury.
  • Do not lean your elbows on tables or armrests.

When should you call for help?

Call your doctor or nurse advice line now or seek immediate medical care if:

  • You have new or worse symptoms of infection, such as:
    • Increased pain, swelling, warmth, or redness.
    • Red streaks leading from the area.
    • Pus draining from the area.
    • A fever.

Watch closely for changes in your health, and be sure to contact your doctor or nurse advice line if:

  • You do not get better as expected.

Where can you learn more?

Go to

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Care instructions adapted under license by your healthcare professional. If you have questions about a medical condition or this instruction, always ask your healthcare professional. Healthwise, Incorporated disclaims any warranty or liability for your use of this information.