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Bursitis - What is it and how to treat it

Bursitis is a common condition for people of all age groups, although we do see it more frequently in people that participate in repetitive uni-directional sports like running, walking, cycling and swimming. Bursitis can be very painful, limiting someones ability to participate is sport, day to day activities, and even force some people to take time off of work.

For such a common condition, it is surprising how little people know about bursitis. This blog will guide you through the basics of bursitis, what causes it, common symptoms, and treatments that you can start at home or discuss with your healthcare provider.

What is Bursitis?

Bursitis is a common condition characterized by the inflammation of a bursa, which is a small, fluid-filled sac located near joints in the body. These bursae act as cushions, reducing friction and allowing smooth movement between bones, tendons, and muscles.

When a bursa becomes inflamed, it can cause pain, swelling, and limited range of motion in the affected joint. Common locations for bursitis to occur include the shoulder, elbow, hip, knee, and heel (Achilles tendon bursitis).

What Causes Bursitis?

Bursitis can develop for a variety of reasons, often related to repetitive movements, overuse, or other factors that can irritate or inflame a bursa. Here is a list of common causes:

1. Repetitive Movements: Activities that involve repetitive motions or prolonged pressure on a particular joint are a common cause of bursitis. Examples include typing (which can lead to wrist bursitis), gardening (elbow bursitis), and running (hip or knee bursitis).

2. Injury or Trauma: Direct injury or trauma to a joint can lead to bursitis. This may occur from a fall, impact, or other accidents that cause damage to the bursa. We commonly see patellar (knee cap) bursitis occur from direct trauma to the knee.

3. Pressure and Friction: Prolonged or excessive pressure and friction on a specific area can irritate the bursa. This can result from activities like leaning on your elbows, kneeling on hard surfaces, or resting on your hips.

4. Infection: Bursitis can sometimes be caused by an infection that reaches the bursa. In such cases, the bursa becomes inflamed due to the body's immune response to the infection. This is known as septic bursitis and typically requires prompt medical attention.

5. Age-Related Changes: As we age, our joints, tendons, and bursae can undergo wear and tear, making them more susceptible to inflammation and injury. This is more common in older individuals.

6. Improper Posture or Mechanics: Poor body mechanics, incorrect posture, or muscle imbalances can increase the risk of developing bursitis. These issues can alter joint mechanics and place extra stress on bursae.

It's important to note that while these are common causes of bursitis, individual cases may vary, and sometimes there may be multiple contributing factors. Early recognition and management of the underlying cause, along with appropriate treatment, can help alleviate symptoms and prevent the recurrence of bursitis. If you suspect you have bursitis or are experiencing persistent joint pain and swelling, it's advisable to seek medical evaluation for a proper diagnosis and tailored treatment plan.

Common Symptoms

If you're experiencing bursitis, you might notice:

  • Pain in or around the affected joint

  • Tenderness and swelling

  • Pain worsened by putting pressure on the area examples: laying on your side with hip bursitis, or kneeling with knee bursitis.

  • Limited range of movement

  • Discomfort while moving a or using a joint through range, example: walking with hip bursitis.

Appropriate Treatment

Effective treatment for bursitis often begins with conservative approaches. Bursitis tends to settle down after a few weeks with proper education, management, and exercise guidance.

Here is a list of appropriate treatments to implement if you suspect you have bursitis:

  • Rest: Allow the area to recover by avoiding activities that aggravate the pain.

  • Ice: Applying ice to the affected area for 15-20 minutes several times a day can help reduce inflammation.

  • Medication: Over-the-counter pain relievers, under the guidance of a healthcare provider, can provide temporary relief.

  • Physical Therapy: A tailored exercise program can correct muscle imbalances and improve joint function.

  • Corticosteroid Injections: In some cases, your healthcare provider may suggest corticosteroid injections to reduce inflammation.

  • Lifestyle Modifications: Adjusting your posture, using supportive devices, or trying different activities can alleviate pressure on the affected area

Beneficial Exercises:

If muscle imbalances and tension over the affected joint and inflamed bursa is what is causing pain and swelling, strengthening exercises are advised. One of the best ways to introducing strengthening without causing more inflammation is doing isometric exercises targeted at the surrounding muscles.

Remember bursae don’t like friction or repetitive movement, so doing a series of exercises that move a joint over and over again with high repetitions runs the risk of making the bursitis worse. That’s where isometrics come in. Isometrics are a style of exercise that strengthen muscles without movement. A common isometric exercise is a plank - muscles are working but you are not moving.

By using this style of exercise you can correct muscle imbalances and hopefully reduce pain, swelling, and prevent the bursitis from returning.

Here are some examples of isometric exercises for Hip Bursitis:

  • Seated Isometric Hip Abduction:

Complete 2-3 sets x 10 reps, x 10 second holds

Use your hands as resistance, only apply as much pressure as you can tolerate

  • Side Lying Isometric Leg Lift:

Complete 2-3 sets x 10 reps, x 10 second holds with the affected side on top only.

Only lift as high as you can tolerate, for some people this may only be a few cm or inches

  • Side Plank:

Complete 3 sets x 30-60 second holds on each side

You may have to start with your affected hip on top first only and progress to both sides

  • Standing Isometric Hip Abduction Against the Wall:

Complete 3 sets x 10 reps x 10 second holds

You may need to start standing on your affected leg only to start and progress to both sides

Remember, it's crucial to perform these exercises with proper form and under the guidance of a physiotherapist or healthcare provider. Avoid overdoing it, as excessive exercise can exacerbate the condition.

Bursitis can be painful, but with the right treatment and exercises, you can regain your mobility and reduce discomfort. Always consult a healthcare professional for a personalized treatment plan. Remember, patience and consistency are key to a successful recovery. Your bursa will thank you!

If you'd like to learn more about bursitis or want to speak to physiotherapist about an individualized treatment plan, you can make an appointment on your website or call 604-553-1203.


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