Definition and Overview

The joints in the body are somewhat similar to mechanical moving parts in a sense that they also need lubrication to prevent them from being worn down quickly due to friction. However, unlike mechanical parts that require manual lubrication every so often, the body’s joints have their own lubrication system called the bursa. These sac-like structures are filled with lubrication fluids and are responsible for keeping the bone, muscle, tissue and tendon well lubricated, effectively reducing friction in the process.

There are over 160 bursae in the human body and like any organic structure, a bursa is also prone to damage that may be caused by an injury or disease. One such condition is called bursitis, which is characterized by the inflammation of the bursa.

Bursitis is a painful condition that mostly affects the shoulders, elbows, and hip as these joints are the most commonly used. However, all the bursae in the body are prone to the condition, which is why some people may experience bursitis in the knee or even the big toe.

The majority of bursitis cases don’t present much of a problem other than pain and discomfort, which can limit the range of motion in the affected area. Complications arising from the condition are relatively few. However, if left untreated, the area can become infected, thus giving way to complications brought about by an infection.

Cause of Condition

The primary cause of bursitis is injury to the joint caused by overuse or sudden trauma. Therefore, people with working conditions that require frequent and repetitive use of their joints or apply continuous pressure or stress on the joint are more prone to the condition.

These jobs include carpentry, masonry, carpet layers, gardeners, and other manual labor jobs. However, even office workers who need to type on the computer all day may also develop the condition.

Diseases that affect the bones and joints, such as rheumatoid arthritis, can also cause bursitis.

Key Symptoms

The first sign of bursitis is a dull pain in the affected area that becomes more intense with continued movements or when pressure is applied. For instance, in prepatellar bursitis, the bursa located near the kneecap becomes inflamed and results in a dull ache. However, the pain intensifies when standing or attempting to walk. Other signs are swelling and reduced mobility of the joint.

If bursitis is caused by an infection, such as in septic bursitis, the patient is likely to experience a high fever, shivering, and poor skin condition above the affected area.

Who to See and Types of Treatment Available

If bursitis is not caused by an infection, meaning that the pain and swelling of the affected area are not accompanied by a fever, medical attention will not be required. However, if signs of infection are present, the patient is encouraged to consult a doctor as soon as possible to prevent the infection from spreading.

The first step in treating bursitis at home is to rest the affected area. Over-the-counter pain medications, such as ibuprofen or paracetamol, as well as ice packs, can help in reducing pain and swelling.

If the condition doesn’t improve after a couple of weeks with home treatment, the patient should consider consulting a family doctor. In most cases, a general practitioner can prescribe the best treatment based on the specific condition of the patient. Treatment options can include corticosteroid injections and aspiration of fluids that can build up in the affected area. Removing the excess fluid should reduce swelling and pain almost immediately.

If an infection has caused the inflammation of the bursa, the doctor will prescribe antibiotics to control the infection, which should also reduce fever and other symptoms.

Severe cases of bursitis may require the expertise of specialists, such as a rheumatologist or orthopedist. If the condition requires therapy, a physical therapist will also be consulted to aid in strengthening the muscles surrounding the affected area.


  • Silverstein JA, Moeller JL, Hutchinson MR. Common issues in orthopedics. In: Rakel RE, Rakel DP, eds. Textbook of Family Medicine. 8th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Saunders Elsevier; 2011:chap 30.
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