Arthritis, Bursitis, or Tendonitis: What's Causing my Pain?

Arthritis, Bursitis, or Tendonitis: What's Causing My Pain?

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A senior man holds his shoulder as he winces in pain while standing near a pull-up bar at an outdoor fitness station in a park.

If you have pain in or around your joints, it could be caused by arthritis, bursitis, or tendonitis. All three conditions can interfere with your ability to participate in everyday activities or the hobbies you love, but the source of pain varies and therefore requires different treatment. Read on to learn more about the similarities and differences between arthritis pain and pain caused by bursitis or tendonitis.

Common pains, different causes.

Arthritis, bursitis, and tendonitis are three different conditions, but they share similarities. For many people, these conditions can cause pain and swelling, which makes it harder to perform even basic movements. The source of pain for all three involves inflammation, but the location of the inflammation varies.

  • Arthritis is caused by joint inflammation that occurs most commonly due to natural wear and tear that comes with aging.
  • Bursitis can develop when a tiny sac (bursa) that prevents tissue and joints from rubbing becomes inflamed.
  • Tendonitis affects the tendons, or tissues that connect muscle to bone. Overuse or injury can cause these tendons to become inflamed and painful.

Because bursitis and tendonitis pain may be felt near the joints, it is sometimes mistaken for arthritis. Knowing the differences between these conditions can help you identify and address the root cause of your joint pain to get you back to an active life.

Bursitis and tendonitis are sometimes mistaken for #Arthritis. On the #MedStarBlog, sports medicine expert Dr. Emmanuel Atiemo explains the differences:
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Healthy joints are surrounded by cartilage that prevents the bones from rubbing against one another at the joint. When this cartilage wears down, it can cause painful swelling and inflammation where the bones meet, called arthritis. Many people develop the condition over time, with degenerative arthritis being one of the most common types of arthritis. Arthritis symptoms can range from mild aching pain to a sharp, radiating pain in the affected joint (commonly in the spine, knees, hips, or shoulders). 

Other forms of arthritis include:

  • Rheumatoid arthritis, which develops when the body's immune system attacks the joint lining
  • Gout, a type of inflammatory arthritis that often causes swelling and pain in joints (most commonly in the big toe)

Diagnosing and treating arthritis.

It's possible to have arthritis but not need treatment. However, when pain and stiffness limit your ability to live your life to the fullest, treatment can help to manage arthritis. To diagnose arthritis, a doctor will perform a physical examination and order X-rays to better view any possible joint damage. An X-ray will help pinpoint the cause of pain and the severity of the condition, which will help determine treatment options.

Many conservative treatment options can help to reduce pain caused by degenerative arthritis. Anti-inflammatory medication, steroid injections, physical therapy, and bracing can all help to alleviate discomfort in the swollen joint. If non-surgical treatment options are unsuccessful and pain significantly affects your quality of life, you may benefit from joint replacement surgery. This is a decision that should be made after weighing the pros and cons of surgery with the guidance of an experienced orthopedic surgeon.


The bursa is a small sac that serves as a cushion between tissue and joints to prevent friction. When the bursa suddenly becomes inflamed, it can cause pain, especially in the elbow, hips, or shoulder. Patients describe bursitis as a more vague pain felt near the affected joint. Like arthritis, bursitis can also cause stiffness and swelling.

Diagnosing and treating bursitis.

Bursitis is often a temporary pain, but if it lingers or worsens, a doctor can confirm a diagnosis using an X-ray or other imaging tests. Many patients experience relief from bursitis pain with non-surgical treatments, such as a cortisone shot to the affected bursa or physical therapy. However, if bursitis pain persists or becomes chronic, some patients benefit from a minimally invasive procedure that can drain or remove the inflamed bursa.


Some people assume they have arthritis if they feel pain near a joint, but sometimes pain is caused by inflammation or damage to a nearby tendon. Tendons are elastic tissue that connects your muscles to bones. When tendons become inflamed due to repetitive motion, injury, or aging, it's called tendonitis. 

Diagnosing and treating tendonitis.

Tendonitis is harder to spot on imaging tests, but an experienced sports medicine or orthopedic expert can identify tendonitis by asking questions, reviewing your medical history, and performing a clinical exam. 

Non-surgical treatments and rest often help tendonitis resolve over time. If conservative treatment options fail to provide relief and pain persists longer than six months, you may benefit from surgery. It's important to talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits involved with all of your treatment options to address the source of pain in the most effective way possible.

Treating the patient, not the X-ray.

Not everyone with these conditions needs treatment at all. It's possible that we could spot arthritis on an X-ray but choose to leave it alone if it isn't getting in the way of your life. However, if you have pain in and near your joints and it's affecting your quality of life, you don't have to live with it.

Getting an accurate diagnosis will ensure the proper treatment that addresses the root cause. Various treatment options can help get you moving again without pain, from conservative therapies to minimally invasive surgeries. In many cases, people with arthritis, bursitis, or tendonitis respond well to non-surgical treatment options. If you've exhausted those options and still haven't found relief, our specialized orthopedic experts from MedStar Orthopaedic Institute are here to help you determine the right next steps.

Listen to your body and seek answers when you can't live your life to the fullest. Don't wait for joint pain to disappear on its own—we can help.

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