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Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen MartinReviewed on 19.10.2023 | 3 minutes read

A bursa is a small fluid-filled sac that is located near the joints and acts as a cushion for the bones, muscles, and tendons. When a bursa becomes inflamed, the condition is called bursitis – and it leads to a red, swollen, painful, and stiff joint. This is commonly diagnosed based on history and examination alone, and no further investigation is usually needed.

Commonly this inflammation occurs in the elbows, knees, shoulders, and hips, but you can suffer bursitis in any joint area of the body. Bursitis can be managed at home and usually subsides within a few weeks, but it can reoccur again in the future.

Why does bursitis happen?

Repetitive movement is the most common cause of bursitis, as this puts pressure on the bursae and can cause them to become inflamed. If you work or perform a lot of manual labor or play lots of sports, you are more likely to develop bursitis.

Bursitis may develop after trauma, injury, or infection. Other conditions, such as inflammatory arthritis or gout, can also cause it.

How can you manage bursitis at home?

If you know you have bursitis, then the most important thing you can do is to rest to prevent the area from getting worse. Using a cool ice pack in the early days can also help reduce the inflammation, as well as taking an anti-inflammatory medication like ibuprofen, or simple painkillers like acetaminophen to ease the pain.

When should I see my doctor?

If you have a red, hot, swollen joint, then you will need to see your doctor urgently. There are different causes of swollen joints, including some joint infections that may require urgent treatment. If you know you have bursitis, and the pain is not improving despite home management, or you feel like your symptoms are worsening, then you should contact your doctor.

Severe sharp shooting pains, inability to move the joint, or an associated fever warrants you speaking to your doctor right away to assess for any infection.

Your doctor may prescribe some antibiotics if there is a risk of infection or stronger painkillers and anti-inflammatories. If your symptoms are still not controlled, then your doctor may refer you to a physiotherapist or specialist who can assess you and consider therapy, steroid injections, or in rare cases, surgery.

Can I prevent it from happening?

There are certain things you can do to reduce your risk of developing bursitis. If you are at risk of repetitive motion injuries in any one of your joints, consider ensuring you have the correct protective clothing or support.

Try to ensure you lift heavy objects properly and avoid putting too much weight on any one joint in particular. It is important to take regular breaks to prevent overloading your joints, and stretch and warm up your muscles properly before exercising. Exercise is beneficial and helps to strengthen your muscles and maintain a healthy weight, which helps with general health and fitness, but can also protect your joints from injuries such as bursitis.

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This article has been written by UK-based doctors and pharmacists, so some advice may not apply to US users and some suggested treatments may not be available. For more information, please see our T&Cs.
Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed on 19.10.2023
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