Bursitis

Bursitis is when your joints become painful, tender and swollen. It can usually be treated at home and should go away in a few weeks.

Check if you have bursitis

Bursitis happens when the fluid-filled sacs (bursa) that cushion your joints become inflamed.

You might have bursitis if one of your joints is:

  • painful – usually a dull, achy pain
  • tender or warm
  • swollen or red
  • more painful when you move it or press on it

It can affect any joint but is most common in the shoulders, hips, elbows or knees.

How to treat bursitis yourself

You can use the following three steps to help bring down swelling and pain:

  1. Rest – try not to move the joint too much, and avoid activities that will put pressure on it.
  2. Ice – gently hold an ice pack (or a bag of frozen peas) wrapped in a tea towel on the area for around 10 minutes at a time and repeat every few hours during the day.
  3. Elevate – keep the area raised to the level of your heart as much as possible.

Take painkillers, such as paracetamol or ibuprofen, to ease any pain. You may also want to put extra cushions around the affected joint while you sleep to help protect and support it.

See a GP if:

  • your symptoms haven't improved or are getting worse after treating it yourself for a week or two
  • you have a very high temperature, or you feel hot and shivery
  • you can't move the affected joint
  • you have very severe, sharp or shooting pains in the joint

What happens at your GP appointment

They may take a sample of fluid from the affected joint using a needle (aspiration). This will be sent to test for infections and may also help your symptoms.

Aspiration might be done in your GP surgery or you may be referred to the hospital.

If your symptoms don't get better after treatment you may be referred for further tests, such as:

  • blood tests to look for other conditions, like rheumatoid arthritis or gout
  • scans to look for other causes, such as damage to the muscles

Treatments for bursitis

  • antibiotics – usually taken for 7 days if bursitis is due to an infection
  • a steroid injection may be given into the affected joint to reduce the swelling – this won't be done if bursitis is caused by an infection
  • if bursitis is severe or keeps coming back, the inflamed bursa may need to be surgically drained or even removed – but this is rare

How to stop bursitis coming back

Do

  • maintain a healthy weight – being overweight puts more pressure on your joints
  • clean any cuts on elbows and knees to prevent infections
  • warm up properly before exercising and playing sport
  • use padding when putting a lot of pressure on joints – for example, when kneeling

Don't

  • knock or bang your joints
  • move a joint repetitively without taking frequent breaks

Page last reviewed: 13/10/2017
Next review due: 13/10/2020

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