My Elbow Hurts — Is It Arthritis or Bursitis?

My Elbow Hurts — Is It Arthritis or Bursitis?

Elbow pain is fairly common, especially among athletes and people who use their arms for repetitive activities, like lifting. Like other joint pain, elbow pain becomes more common with age as wear and tear on joint surfaces begin to take their toll. 

To find relief for elbow pain, you need to know what’s causing it. For many people, that means learning to tell the differences between pain caused by arthritis and bursitis, two relatively common sources of pain that require a different approach to treatment.

Victor Mendoza, MD, relies on his extensive experience in diagnosing and treating elbow injuries to help patients at Vulcan Pain Management find long-lasting, meaningful relief from their symptoms. If you have elbow pain, here’s what you should know about these two common causes of joint discomfort.

Elbow pain: Arthritis vs. bursitis

Both arthritis and bursitis can cause similar symptoms, so the first step in differentiating between them is understanding how they affect your elbow joint. 

Basic elbow anatomy

Your elbow forms where your upper arm bone (the humerus) meets the two bones of the lower arm (the radius and ulna bones). The ends of these bones are covered with a thick layer of slippery cartilage that protects the bones and facilitates smooth movement.

A bursa is a fluid-filled sac that acts as a protective cushion between a bone and surrounding soft tissues. There are several bursae located throughout your body. The one in the elbow is located near the bony “tip’” of the elbow.


Arthritis happens when the cartilage in a joint is damaged or wears away. Most people think arthritis is a single disease, but actually, there are several types of arthritis, including:

Arthritis causes symptoms like:

Arthritis is a chronic condition that typically gets worse over time.


Less common than arthritis, elbow bursitis happens when the bursa in your elbow is inflamed. Sometimes, bursitis is caused by an infection in the elbow joint. Other times, irritation and inflammation can be caused by a fall that causes a direct impact to your elbow.

Bursitis can also be associated with autoimmune disorders, like rheumatoid arthritis, when inflammation from the joint spreads to the bursa. Repetitive movement of the joint, like bending your arm over and over again to lift heavy objects, is another cause of bursa inflammation.

Bursitis is associated with symptoms like:

Unlike arthritis, which is chronic, bursitis clears up with proper medical care.

Treating arthritis and bursitis

The good news is, even though arthritis and bursitis can cause a lot of discomfort they typically can be treated conservatively without invasive surgery. Treatment begins with a review of your symptoms and your medical history, along with a physical exam of your elbow, diagnostic imaging, and blood tests when appropriate.

Most people with either condition benefit from treatment comprising different therapies, including:

Less commonly, a badly damaged joint or deeply infected bursa might require surgery to either repair the joint or drain an infection. When needed, Dr. Mendoza can refer you to specialists for targeted treatment, including treatment for underlying problems like autoimmune diseases.

Relief for your elbow pain

Arthritis and bursitis are just two possible causes of elbow pain. There are other causes, too. Having a medical evaluation early on ensures you get the right care to relieve your symptoms and prevent further problems.

To learn more about joint pain treatments at our Birmingham, Alabama, practice, call 205-258-7246 or book an appointment online with Dr. Mendoza today.

You Might Also Enjoy...

Tips for Preventing Tech Neck

Tech neck is a catchy name for chronic neck pain caused by the overuse of technology — primarily smartphones. While avoiding your phone might seem extreme, there are some other steps you can take to prevent painful symptoms. Here’s what to do.

Is It Ever Safe to Use Opioids?

The opioid epidemic is so pervasive that it’s easy to think these drugs are nothing but trouble. But opioids play a crucial role in pain management. The key is working with a pain management specialist with experience in prescribing these drugs.

What to Do About Cancer Pain

Chronic pain is an unfortunate “side effect” of cancer for many people, but pain management therapies can help. Here’s why cancer pain happens and how we can help you find relief.

5 Causes of Lower Back Pain

Lower back pain might be common, but that doesn’t mean it’s OK to ignore it. Lots of issues can cause pain, and in most cases, those issues require customized medical care to get better. Here are five problems that could be causing your symptoms.

5 Ways to Manage Chronic Pain

Millions of Americans suffer from chronic pain with symptoms that can take a significant toll on physical and emotional health. The good news is there are more options than ever for managing chronic pain, including these five.