By Hook or By Crook: Fixing “Student’s Elbow”

The technical name for “student’s elbow” is olecranon bursitis. The olecranon, the bony point of the elbow, is protected by a small sac of fluid called a bursa. Olecranon bursitis develops when an individual repeatedly leans on his or her elbow (as a student or draftsman might do when working at a desk) or when he or she bumps the tip of the elbow repeatedly (as might a miner or plumber, who must perform physical work in tight spaces). Less commonly, it is caused by overuse and/or strenuous exercise that the elbow is not used to performing.

In olecranon bursitis, the bursa becomes inflamed and can be painful even at rest. The elbow may also be red, tender or swollen—to the size of a golf ball, in some cases. There may be infection and a resultant fever, which would likely require antibiotics. Under rare conditions, corticosteroid injections, drainage of the bursa or surgery could be necessary. More common effective treatments include

  • ice to reduce inflammation causing pain
  • bandaging or bracing
  • rest
  • activity modification
  • soft tissue massage
  • over-the-counter anti-inflammatory drugs (if your physician agrees).

The “donut”—a soft, supportive ring-shaped pillow—cushions your elbow, helps clear up olecranon bursitis and prevents reoccurrence, as well. Protective pads are recommended for people, like plumbers, who must suffer repeated bangs to their joints.

Strengthening exercises will make your muscles and joints more resistant to future problems in the bursae and other parts of the arms. Range-of-motion exercises restore tissue flexibility and permit healthier, less painful movement and activity.

Student’s elbow is usually curable within seven to 14 days. Fortunately, with a little forethought and effort—and our assistance—you may never have to deal with it again.