When you experience joint pain, it’s common to first think about arthritis, tendonitis, or some kind of structural damage. What most folks won’t think about is bursitis. However, bursitis is a condition that can affect anyone, can be very painful, and is frequently underdiagnosed. Here are some important things to know about bursitis and how to treat it:
What Is Bursitis?
Bursae are small fluid-filled pockets found near your joints designed to decrease friction and to cushion your bones, tendons, and ligaments as they move and rub against each other. You have over 160 bursae in your body. Bursitis occurs when one or more of these pockets, or sacs, become irritated, inflamed, swollen, or even infected.
Some of the most common causes of bursitis are overuse of the affected joint, injury, and positions that put pressure on the joint or bursa. Frequently the first symptom of bursitis is pain, especially during times when you’re using the affected joint. You may also experience redness and/or swelling in the area, and the pain may be worse when pressure is applied. It’s common for an irritated bursa to swell with more fluid, which puts pressure on the surrounding tissue and making the area more painful.
Bursitis is most common near joints that perform repetitive motions or undergo constant pressure. Bursitis of the shoulder tends to be felt along the top of your shoulder and occurs frequently in people who do a lot of throwing, painting, or other overhead movements. Bursitis of the elbows is common in people who rest on their elbows. People who lay carpet or garden for a living and spend a great deal of time on their knees are prone to getting bursitis in their knee joints. Sitting on a hard surface for long periods of time can increase your chances of getting bursitis near your ischial bones—also known as your sit bones. And bursitis of the hip is extremely common, especially in people who already have arthritis in their hips.
The risk of developing bursitis is higher in people who have other conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis, gout, or diabetes. Your risk for bursitis also increases as you get older. In addition, flare-ups are common in bursae that have been previously inflamed.
How Can It Be Treated?
Standard treatment of bursitis includes resting the affected joint, ice, heat, over-the-counter pain medication, physical therapy, steroid injections, and in rare cases, surgery. In addition, if the involved bursa is infected, you might also be prescribed an antibiotic.
In Chinese medicine, bursitis is considered a kind of blockage or stagnation. The Chinese say that where there is pain, there is stagnation. This simply means that this painful condition is, at its source, caused by poor circulation, swelling, and inflammation that is not going anywhere. Therefore, the goal of treating bursitis with acupuncture and other Chinese medical methods is to decrease the swelling, restore circulation to the area, support healing, and decrease your pain.
In order to best treat your bursitis, your practitioner needs a great deal of information, such as whether your condition is acute or chronic, the exact location, the quality of your pain (dull, achy, burning, sharp, etc.), what makes it better or worse, if there’s swelling or redness, and any other health conditions you may have. In addition, in Chinese medicine joint pain is considered to be something called a Bi (bee) syndrome, and can be diagnosed as one of several different types. Cold and painful Bi is characterized by intense pain, a limited range of motion, and may get worse during the cold weather. Damp and fixed Bi comes with a heavy achiness, swelling, and possible numbness in the area. Heat Bi describes a red, swollen, and painful joint that feels warm to the touch. Wind and wandering Bi is rarely used to describe bursitis, because the pain moves from joint to joint, which is uncharacteristic of this condition. Arriving at the proper diagnosis allows your practitioner to develop the best treatment strategy for you, such as warming the joint, drying or draining dampness (swelling), or clearing heat. In all cases, improving circulation to the affected area is a goal in order to allow healing and to relieve your pain.
If you seek out an acupuncturist or practitioner of Chinese medicine to treat your bursitis, they will likely needle near the area of your pain, as well as other points on your body, depending on your unique symptoms and health history. They may also incorporate the use of heat, electro acupuncture, herbs, and diet or lifestyle modifications to get the best results.
Acupuncture can be effective for bursitis because research has shown that it reduces inflammation locally where the needles have been placed. It also increases circulation in the area, stimulates your central nervous system to reduce your pain, and supports healing.
Cindy Chamberlain is an acupuncturist in Overland Park, KS and the founder of Eastern Healing Solutions, LLC. She is licensed in Kansas and Missouri and has been practicing traditional Chinese medicine since 1996.