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Pity the poor bursa. We have about 150 of these simple, fluid-filled sacs. Most of us have never heard of them until they start hurting.
Known all together as "bursae," they protect and lubricate joints, reducing rubbing as bones, tendons, muscles, and ligaments do their jobs. Bursae vary in size, but many (like those in the shoulder) are about the size of a silver dollar.
Bursae can become swollen and painful, a condition called bursitis. That makes simple movements of your shoulder, elbow, hip or knee seem like a huge effort.
Overuse and the trauma of direct impact are the most common causes of bursitis.
As you age, you can injure bursae more easily. The sacs become drier over the years. Also, damage happens from wear and tear in and around your joints over time.
People often mistake bursitis for tendinitis. In tendinitis, an inflamed tendon (a fibrous band tying muscle to bone) can cause joint pain.
A softball player might suffer bursitis of the elbow or shoulder from repeated throwing or in the knees from bending low to the ground to serve as a catcher.
Housework causes bursitis, too. For example, people who kneel to clean, garden, or work on a roof are at risk for developing bursitis of the knee.
Experts say that prevention is better than treatment. It's important to listen to your body and not to overdo it when you feel pain or extreme tiredness. If you're kneeling to garden, for instance, you can help your knees by taking regular breaks and using a rubber pad as a cushion.
If you're playing a sport, pay close attention to the basic movements and seek quality coaching. You'll be less likely to use poor mechanics and you'll reduce the chance for injury.
You can also help prevent bursitis by stretching regularly.
Most bursitis goes away without medical attention in 1 to 2 weeks. Many people never realize that an inflamed bursa caused the pain.
Self-treatment of bursitis includes:
Avoiding the activity that led to pain.
Using ice for the first 48 hours after an activity causes pain. Apply the ice wrapped in a towel, 15 to 20 minutes, 3 to 4 times a day. After a couple of days, use moist heat before physical activity and ice after activity if your healthcare provider agrees.
Elevating the injury (when it's possible and not painful) to reduce swelling.
Taking over-the-counter, anti-inflammatory medicines, like ibuprofen, for pain and swelling. Ask your healthcare provider first.
If your pain is severe, doesn’t go away, or interferes with daily activities, it may be time to see a healthcare provider to rule out other causes.
A healthcare provider diagnoses bursitis by putting your injured joint through a gentle range of motion and by pushing lightly on the skin above the painful joint.
Your healthcare provider may prescribe stronger anti-inflammatory medicine or inject the injured bursa with cortisone to ease swelling and pain. The healthcare provider also may prescribe gentle exercise at home. This can improve blood flow to the joint and the bursa and to increase the range of motion.
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