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Could Your Shoulder Pain Be Caused by Bursitis

When people come into my office for shoulder pain, they may wonder if it’s a rotator cuff injury. Pain in the knee or elbow may signal tendinitis. Pain in the hip may be the result of arthritis. One condition that may cause each of these discomforts is bursitis.

What Is Bursitis?Physician examining male patients shoulder

Bursae are small, jelly-like sacs located between bones and soft tissue throughout the body. These sacs provide cushioning to reduce friction as the bones move. Think of bursae as a lubricant on the hinge of a door—they help the hinge move smoothly.

Bursitis is an inflammation of the bursae and most commonly occurs in the sacs located in the shoulder, elbow, hip, knee and heel. It can be caused by a mechanical reason, such as when an abnormal motion of the shoulder leads to irritation near the rotator cuff. Or, in other parts of the body, such as the elbow and knee, bursitis can occur when people work a lot on their knees or consistently put a lot of pressure on their elbows.  Other causes of bursitis include sports injuries, bad posture or walking habits, rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, gout or stress on soft tissues from abnormal joints or bones (i.e. joint deformities or differences in leg length).

Symptoms of Bursitis

The inflammation of the bursae causes tenderness and pain. In your shoulder, for example, you may have difficulty raising your arm overhead and may hear clicking or popping in the shoulder as you move it. The pain may escalate suddenly or increase gradually. It may go away on its own, or it may last or reoccur. If the pain is accompanied by a fever or redness, you may have an infection and should immediately contact your doctor.

Diagnosing and Treating Bursitis

Because bursitis symptoms can be similar to other conditions (rotator cuff injuries, arthritis and tendinitis), it’s helpful to get an accurate diagnosis for effective treatment. The first step in diagnosing any joint pain is providing your doctor with a thorough medical history and having a physical exam. X-rays and advanced imaging with an MRI also can be helpful in pinpointing the cause.

Many treatments are available for bursitis, and the best treatment may vary by case. If you have bursitis in your shoulder, anti-inflammatory medication can help, along with physical therapy. If shoulder bursitis is compounded by arthritis, corticosteroid injections are often used. Bursitis of the elbow or knee can be addressed by avoiding pressure on those regions and using a well-padded brace for cushioning. Other common treatments include rest and splints, hot and cold therapy, over-the-counter and prescription medicine, and physical therapy. Occupational therapy also can be useful in helping you learn ways to modify your movements to avoid re-injuring the area.

Bursitis isn’t just something you have to live with. By getting proper diagnosis and treatment, you can enjoy a pain-free body.

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