Are you suffering from severe pain in a joint such as your elbow, shoulder, or hip? It could be bursitis, an inflammatory condition that results from overuse, or an injury, and can usually be treated with rest.

Your body has about 140 small, fluid-filled sacs, called bursae, which cushion the bones around your joints. The job of the bursae is to help your joints operate smoothly and painlessly when you move around. However, if a bursa becomes inflamed, it results in bursitis: a very painful injury usually caused by overuse, which falls into the category of a repetitive strain injury (RSI).

Where bursitis occurs

The most common locations for bursitis are in the shoulder, elbow and hip. It tends to affect golfers, tennis players and cricketers, or anybody whose joints perform frequent repetitive movements. “We encounter this a lot,” says Dr Darren Green, Mediclinic Event Chief Medical Officer. “Although bursitis can go away in time, most people aren’t aware of how to treat it, so it’s always best to seek help or advice from a doctor or biokineticist.”

Dr Konrad von Hagen, a sports physician and Senior Medical Officer for pro golf’s Sunshine Tour, sees bursitis most often in golfers.

  • As a repetitive strain injury (RSI). “Bursitis is often seen in the shoulder, where it’s called subacromial bursitis,” he says. “Due to the nature of golf swings, it can also occur in the hips, where it’s called trochanteric bursitis. Those are the most common forms of bursitis as an RSI.”
  • As an acute injury. Bursitis can also occur as an acute injury, for example, when you bump and inflame the olecranon bursa, a fluid-filled sac located at the bony tip of your elbow. “When that sac fills up, your elbow looks a bit like Popeye,” says Dr Von Hagen. “It’s not painful, and you can play on – but it’s difficult to get that fluid out if you do continue playing. The sac will just keep filling up.”

Treating bursitis

Because it’s difficult to get the fluid out in an acute injury, Dr Von Hagen recommends rest as the best treatment. “As a doctor, I’ll strap up the joint and ask the patient to rest and keep still until the sac settles,” he says. “The more you move it or bump it, the more it will fill up again.”

Zilké Kolenić, a biokineticist based at Mediclinic Constantiaberg, agrees. “Even though these conditions are due to inflammation in different tissues of the body, most overuse injuries (RSIs) are treated in the same way,” she says. “The first step in treating bursitis would be to stop the aggravating activity and see a biokineticist to determine which muscles need strengthening and which need stretching. With appropriate rehab exercises, overuse injuries are treatable without stopping activity entirely.”

If you’re keen on your sport, it’s reassuring to know that having bursitis doesn’t mean you must stop activity entirely. “Certain exercises are helpful to reduce inflammation and help improve range of motion in the joints,” says Kolenić. “I would usually recommend stopping any activity or movement that causes discomfort and replacing it with appropriate rehabilitative exercises that are healthier and have lower impact on the affected joint.”

Once the inflammation has settled and the supporting muscles around the joint have been strengthened, you’ll be cleared to return to the initial activity. However, both biokineticist and doctor sound a word of warning: Make sure you take it slow, so you don’t cause the bursa to flare up again.