Bursitis is the inflammation and swelling which occurs when a bursa becomes inflamed. A bursa is a fluid filled sac located between tissues such as bone, tendons and skin. Its function is to act as a cushion and decrease friction, rubbing and irritation. We all have about 160 bursae throughout our bodies.
Under normal circumstances they provide a slippery surface that has very little friction with movement. When bursitis occurs, the normal slippery bursa becomes thickened and swollen. This added bulk causes more friction within an already limited space. This leads to pain, swelling and tenderness in the affected area.
Any bursa can become inflamed, but bursitis most commonly occurs in the:
- elbow – where it is often called tennis elbow
- knee – where it is often known as housemaid’s knee
- ankle, foot and Achilles tendon
What causes bursitis?
Bursitis is most often caused by repetitive, minor impact on the area. Age also plays a role. As tendons age they are less elastic and are easier to tear. If you take part in physical activities that involve a lot of repetitive movement, you increase your risk of developing the condition.
Overuse or injury to the joint at work can also increase your risk. High risk activities include gardening, raking, carpentry, painting, carpet fitting and shovelling.
Less commonly, stress or inflammation from other conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, gout, psoriatic arthritis and thyroid disorders may also increase your risk.
What are the symptoms of bursitis?
The most common symptom is pain. This may build up gradually or be sudden and severe. The affected area is often swollen, stiff, warm to the touch and red in colour. The pain often feels like a dull ache which is made worse by movement or pressure. Supporting your body weight may be difficult.
If you have bursitis in your hip causing hip pain, you may find it difficult to lie on the affected side. Severe loss of movement in the shoulder – called frozen shoulder – can also result from the immobility and pain associated with shoulder bursitis.
How can I prevent bursitis?
- By taking precautions such as wearing knee pads when kneeling, you will be less likely to develop the condition.
- Wear well fitting shoes or trainers when walking or running.
- Warm up and stretch properly before exercising.
- You should also build up gradually when doing anything which involves repetition or force.
- Take regular breaks when carrying out tasks that involve repetitive movements.
Try to strengthen the muscles involved if you have suffered from bursitis previously. Remember to wait until your symptoms have cleared up before doing this.
What are the treatment options?
Most cases of bursitis can be treated at home with self care techniques and over the counter painkillers. Here are some things you could try:
- Rest the joint until your symptoms improve and avoid strenuous activities.
- Wear padding to protect the joint.
- Use ice packs to reduce the swelling and inflammation.
- Try to avoid lying on the affected side of your body when sleeping.
- Raise the affected area if possible by using a pillow.
- Try to lose some weight to lessen the pressure on your joints.
- Try to avoid long periods of standing if your pain is in your knees, ankles or hips.
- Try to keep the joint from increasing in stiffness by doing gentle stretches and rotations.
- Painkillers such as aspirin, paracetamol or ibuprofen can help to relieve the pain.
If the swelling is particularly severe, you may consider having the fluid drained out. The procedure is known as aspiration and involves the use of a needle to draw out the fluid. You should avoid strenuous activity for a couple of days afterwards.
If your symptoms are severe and don’t respond to other treatment, your GP may consider corticosteroid injections. These can deliver steroids directly into the affected area to reduce inflammation.
If you also have an infection, your GP may prescribe antibiotics. It is important to finish the entire course, even if your symptoms improve.
Finally, as we always recommend, if you are at all concerned about your symptoms, don’t hesitate to make an appointment with your GP.
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