How A Case of Student’s Elbow Almost Killed Me…No Seriously.

A few years ago, I thought my elbow was going to give birth to a tennis ball.  OK, maybe the tennis ball thing is a bit of an exaggeration, but the whole ordeal was no less dramatic than childbirth.  I woke up one Sunday morning with a red, warm, painful bump on my elbow.  I passed it off as just a reaction to a spider bite.  It wasn’t until later that day when the swelling and pain worsened, that I scrambled my brain to try to figure out where this growing blob on my elbow came from.  Then the light bulb came.  I had banged my elbow really hard the day before.  So why wouldn’t I remember that you ask?  Well if you actually knew me, you would know the sad reality that I haven’t mastered this thing people call balance, not to mention how furniture and walls tend to jump out at me.  That’s right, random acts of violence from inanimate objects are not as rare of an occurrence as I would like to admit.  So there I sat, perseverating on the pain and how it got there.  None of this helped my judgment with what to actually do about it.  Thank God for my older brother.  He had the sense to recognize that it’s not normal for elbows to give birth to tennis balls.  So off to the ER we went.

The moment of truth came.  The official diagnosis from the ER doctor, “You have a ruptured BURSA SAC”.  I remembered asking, “What?! I never knew I had one of those.”   Apparently, everyone has several bursa sacs throughout the entire body.  They are small fluid-filled sacs that serve as protective padding, usually located under tendons or between joint spaces.  They can become inflamed and cause a lot of pain, like with greater trochanteric bursitis (aka hip pointers), or at the elbow (aka Student’s Elbow).  As with my case however, they can completely rupture.  The most common remedy for a severely inflamed bursa sac is to get it drained.  That night when I was in the ER, the doctor gave me a local anesthetic, drained my elbow, gave me antibiotics, and sent me home.  The doctor told me I was lucky because had I waited any longer, the bacteria that drained into my bloodstream could have been fatal.

I wish that was the end of my ordeal but it wouldn’t make for much of a story then would it. The next morning the swelling and pain increased, I had to go back to the ER.  This time, they gave me an IV to try to flush the bacteria out of my system.   I was given more antibiotics and a sling to help support and limit the use of my elbow.  Another day rolled around, and this bursa was insistent on getting the last word.  Off I went to see the doctor yet again.  At this point, the doctor gave me two options: 1) another round of antibiotics or 2) cut open my elbow, remove the ruptured bursa and clean out the bacteria manually.  I decided to take the surgical route considering the doctor wasn’t sure how many more times I would need to come back for antibiotics or even if it would cure me.  If it couldn’t get more gruesome, they didn’t just slice me and stitch me.  They had to pack my wound with sterile gauze.  Apparently this technique is used to allow the incision to heal from the inside out.  I’ve heard of elbow pads, but this wasn’t at all what I had in mind.  Even though I no longer had a bursa sac in my elbow, I had trouble bending my elbow because the gauze was taking up so much space in my elbow.  Periodically, I came in so the doctor could repack my elbow until it was fully healed.  I guess this is a pretty common practice for treating (subdermal) wounds.  I would have thought of it as pretty routine myself had the doctor actually used a little bit of anesthesia every time he repacked my elbow.  It would turn out to be months before my elbow was back to feeling normal. I had read it can take several months for the bursa sac to grow back entirely.  When the sacs grow back, they are supposed to come in normally and function correctly.  It has been years since this whole ordeal happened.  I still cringe when I hear the word “pack” or even “sac”.  I guess there was a greater lesson in all of this:

In the face of a medical emergency, don’t wait to grow a sac.  Act immediately! It can save your life…

By: Brittany Fecteau, MVP Team Member