A bursa is a thin, slippery sac found around a joint that releases lubrication called synovial fluid. Its primary function is to provide cushioning between bone and surrounding soft tissue, such as skin, muscles, ligaments and tendons. Under normal circumstances, the bursa provides a smooth surface that allows for minimal friction with movement between these structures.
The term "bursitis" refers to any inflammation or irritation of the bursa. When this occurs, the bursa loses its gliding capabilities, and becomes thickened and swollen. As a result, the added size of the swollen bursa causes more friction within an already confined space, and the smooth gliding bursa becomes gritty and rough.
There are approximately 160 bursae in the body. Fortunately, only a handful of them usually develop bursitis. The most common areas to get bursitis include the shoulder, elbow, hip and knee regions. Less frequently, bursitis may also occur in the wrist, buttocks, heel and big toe. Symptoms of bursitis include swelling, pain, and tenderness in the affected region. This may also be accompanied by reduced range of motion and strength which can lead to a significant decrease in physical functioning.
There are several factors that can contribute to the development of bursitis. Activities that result in repetitive overuse or prolonged and excessive pressure on a body region are a common culprit. An example of this would be constant overhead lifting using your shoulders or continuous kneeling on a hard surface with your knees. A bursa can also become injured as a result of a blunt trauma or fall such as slipping on ice and landing on your hip. Bursitis is more common in adults, especially in those over 40 years of age. As soft tissues age they become less elastic and durable making them more susceptible to overuse and traumatic injuries. Other possible causes and risk factors for developing bursitis which may require additional medical management include infection from an opening on the skin surface, rheumatoid arthritis, gout and diabetes.
Conservative self-care strategies for reducing the pain of bursitis should initially involve relative rest from any painful activities and ice application. Altering or eliminating the situations that contributed to the bursitis is also important. This may include activity modification such as using the correct technique, tools, and/or equipment. In addition, taking breaks to relax overworked muscles and joints, and performing exercises to strengthen the body can also be effective.
Bursitis that does not respond to self-care strategies may require professional treatment. This can include acupuncture and electrotherapeutic modalities to decrease pain, manual and soft tissue therapy to assist in healing, and specific rehabilitative conditioning training for the affected muscles and joints.
If you are having difficulty with a case of bursitis, a qualified health professional can prescribe appropriate therapy and rehabilitation strategies specifically for your circumstance. For more information, visit www.nhwc.ca.
This article is a basic summary for educational purposes only. It is not intended, and should not be considered, as a replacement for consultation, diagnosis or treatment by a duly licensed health practitioner.