Your Painful Joints Could Be Bursitis

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The major joints in your body – shoulders, elbows, hips, and knees – are cushioned by sacs of fluid called bursa. You have about 150 bursae in your body. If any of those sacs become inflamed, you may develop bursitis.

What Causes Bursitis?

Orthopedic surgeon Eric Fester, MD, says there are several reasons why painful joints (and the bursitis that results) may occur.

“The most common reason is overuse. You repeatedly move a certain way, and it inflames your bursa,” he says. Leaning on your elbows at your desk, or constant kneeling while gardening, are examples of activities that may cause bursitis. The repetitive motion of some sports also can cause bursitis. Runners can develop bursitis in their hip, says Dr. Fester. A painter who does a lot of overhead work may develop bursitis in the shoulder.

While many cases of bursitis can be work-related, or exercise-related, the condition can develop after just a day or two of repetitive work. “I may have a patient tell me he spent one long weekend raking leaves. Between the rake and the leaf blower, his shoulder bursa became inflamed,” says Dr. Fester. “If you jump into an activity you haven’t done in a while, bursitis can result.”

Bursitis also can develop as you heal from another injury. If you injure your foot, for example, you may change the way you walk while the foot heals. You may not even realize you’re doing it, but that small change in your gait may inflame the bursa in your hip.

Your bursa also may become inflamed due to rheumatoid arthritis, gout, or an infection. “But repetitive overuse of a joint is the most common cause,” says Dr. Fester.

How Is Bursitis Treated?

The first step is to stop the repetitive motion that likely is causing the inflammation, says Dr. Fester. But at the same time, it’s important to keep the joint limber. “If you don’t move the joint at all, scar tissue can cause the joint to tighten and result in more pain. So you need to gently stretch the area to prevent that from happening.”

Taking over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medication should help significantly, says Dr. Fester. “But they can be hard on your stomach, so be sure to take them with food.” Applying ice to the area, elevating the area, and applying a wrap to create some compression should also keep the swelling down, he adds.

If there is no improvement, your doctor may inject a steroid into the area around the swollen bursa to ease the pain and swelling. If the pain still persists after several months, your doctor may suggest surgery. The purpose of surgery is to remove the scar tissue, says Dr. Fester. “Depending on which joint is in pain, the surgery may be open or, especially in the case of shoulders, it can be arthroscopic, which requires just two tiny incisions instead of one larger incision.”

When Should I See My Doctor?

Although bursitis is not an emergency situation, Dr. Fester suggests you seek help from your doctor if the pain and swelling persists and over-the-counter medication, ice, and elevation don’t help.

Sometimes bursae can get infected. Warning signs of infection would be lots of warmth, redness, and the area becoming soft and mushy, says Dr. Fester. Drainage is another sign of infection. “If you have any signs of infection, you should get in to see your doctor right away,” he recommends.

Is There a Way To Prevent Bursitis?

Ideally, avoiding the activity that puts pressure on your joint will prevent bursitis. If you work at a desk, for example, don’t rest your elbows on the desk all day long. If you have a job that requires crawling on your knees, try wearing knee pads, suggests Dr. Fester. And whatever the activity, rest often by taking breaks. In some instances, wearing a splint or brace (on your wrist, for example) that restricts movement can prevent inflammation. 

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