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What is it

That dull misery in the shoulder, knee, or elbow known as bursitis can and does strike anybody, from the couch potato to the highly trained athlete. Though bursitis may hurt as much as arthritis, it isn’t a joint disease. Rather, it’s an acute or chronic painful inflammation of a bursa. Bursae (from the Greek word for wine-skin and related to the English word purse) are small, closed, fluid-filled sacs that protect muscles and ten- dons from irritation produced by contact with bones. If friction gets too great from over exercising, hard work, or injury, for instance the bursae themselves may get inflamed.

Though the shoulder is a common locale for bursitis, any of the bursae in the human body there are approximately 150 can become irritated. Occupational bursitis is not uncommon and is known by old, familiar names such as “housemaid’s knee,” and “policeman’s heel.” One of the most common foot ailments, the bunion, is a form of bursitis caused by friction: a tightfitting shoe causes a sac on the joint of the big toe to become inflamed.


  • Nagging ache and swelling in or around a joint.
  • Painful and restricted movement in the affected joint.
  • Pain radiating into the neck or arms when bursitis strikes the shoulder (the most common site).
  • Fever, when associated with an infection.

What causes it

Repetitive, vigorous movement, strenuous and unaccustomed activities that put pressure on a joint, or a blow or other injury can bring on bursitis. The cause can vary depending on where the bursitis occurs. In the shoulder, for example, it can be brought on by excessive strain, such as from serving in tennis. Kneeling on a hard floor can cause bursitis of the knee, and similarly, repeatedly resting the elbow on a hard surface (such as a desk) can cause bursitis in that joint. Arthritis, gout, and certain infections can also contribute to the problem. Bursitis, in fact, may signal the onset of arthritis.

While getting older isn’t a cause of bursitis, older people, especially older athletes, are more likely to develop the condition.

What if you do nothing

Bursitis is not in itself a serious ailment. It often clears up on its own in a week or so, especially if you are careful to protect the injured area from further aggravation. However, bursitis sometimes recurs and becomes chronic, in which case you should seek medical attention.

Home remedies

If you follow these steps, most attacks of bursitis should subside in four or five days and all symptoms should be gone within two weeks.

Rest the body part that hurts

If you suspect that one activity has caused the pain, stop it until the pain is entirely gone. A sling, splint, or padding may be needed to protect the area from possible bumps or irritation.

Try over-the-counter pain relievers

Nonprescription NSAIDs (aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen) will help reduce pain and swelling, though they won’t accelerate healing. Acetaminophen help with pain but it doesn’t decrease swelling.

Ice it, then heat it

Use ice packs throughout the first two days to bring down inflammation. After that use warm baths or a heating pad (on a medium or low setting) to reduce pain and encourage blood flow.

Don’t push it

Resume exercising only after you feel better Start with gently activity.

Skip the liniments

Liniments and balms are no help for bursitis. Liniments don’t penetrate deeply enough to treat bursitis; they mainly warm the skin and make it tingle, thus distract- ing attention from the pain beneath. Massage is likely to make matters worse.


It isn’t always possible to avoid the sudden blow, bump, or fall that may produce bursitis. But you can protect your body with measures similar to those that protect you from other kinds of overuse injuries, such as tendinitis.

Keep yourself in good shape

Strengthening and flexibility exercises tone muscles that support joints and help increase joint mobility.

Don’t push yourself too hard (or too long).

If you’re engaged in physical labor, pace yourself and take frequent breaks. If you’re beginning a new exercise program or a new sport, work up gradually to higher levels of fitness. And anytime you’re in pain, stop.

Work on technique

Make sure your technique is correct when you play a sport, particularly tennis or golf, or any sport that may strain your shoulder.

Watch out for “elbow-itis.”

If you habitually lean on your elbow at your work desk, this may be a sign that your chair is uncomfortable or the wrong height. Try to arrange your work space so that you don’t have to lean on your elbow to read, write, or view your computer screen.

Take knee precautions

If you have a task that calls for lots of kneeling (for example, refinishing or waxing a floor), cushion your knees, change position frequently, and take breaks.

Wear the right shoes

High-heeled or ill-fit- ting shoes cause bunions, and tight shoes can also cause bursae in the heel. Problems in the feet can also affect the hips. In particular, the tendons and bursitis in the hips can be put under excessive strain by worn-down heels. Buy shoes that fit and keep them in good repair. Never wear a shoe that’s too short or too narrow or that chafes your foot. Women should wear comfortable shoes for walking and for daily chores, and save their high heels for special occasions.

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