Soft, Hard, Watery, Painful Lump on Elbow: Diagnosis, Symptoms, Treatment

A lump on the elbow can occur on the skin surface or inside the elbow joint. Depending on the cause, such a lump may be accompanied by a number or symptoms or occur asymptomatically. The lump can also be soft, hard, painful, painless or watery.

Infections and injuries are the leading causes of elbow lumps. For this reason, most lumps on elbows will cause some form of discomfort or pain. Severe cases will compromise joint movement in the elbow.

A decision on whether to seek medical treatment should always be given the attention it deserves. For example, a small lump on elbow caused by rheumatoid arthritis is easy to ignore. The problem is that diseases such as arthritis get worse with time and without treatment.

This article discusses the common causes of elbow lumps and their symptoms. It also touches on the available treatment options. All the same, your doctor will be in the best position to prescribe the best treatment.

Watery lump on elbow; olecranon bursitis

One of the most common causes of lump on elbow is a condition referred to as olecranon bursitis. It occurs inside of elbow joint but may form a lump on the tip of elbow.


Olecranon bursa is the name given to a sac fluid that reduces friction between your skin and the bony part of your elbow or elbow tendon. This sac fluid can swell or get inflamed due to injury or infection. When this occurs, an olecranon bursitis forms.

If the tip of your elbow is hit, the bursa can swell. Swelling can also be encouraged by leaning on your elbow for long. This is commonly seen in students and plumbers. Damage to outer skin may lead to infection. People with rheumatoid arthritis show a higher tendency of developing olecranon bursitis.


As much as olecranon bursa has been identified as a fluid, don’t expect it to form a watery lump when swollen. In fact, this type of fluid occurs throughout the body but cannot be felt by touch. The most profound symptom of olecranon bursitis is swelling. A swollen lump on top of elbow tip will form. The swelling may occur slowly or immediately.

Some olecranon bursitis lumps will cause pain when the affected elbow is bent. If infected, common signs of infection such as pus formation and skin tenderness will occur.


In a clinic, X-ray images may be taken to confirm that the swollen lump is due to olecranon bursitis. Additional tests may be required if there are signs of infection.

Surgical removal of olecranon bursitis is considered when other options have failed. Other than surgical removal, draining the lump and corticosteroid injections will be considered. Antibiotics and pain killers will be necessary if the lump is infected.

At home, make sure to keep the affected elbow from direct pressure and trauma. You can for example consider wearing elbow pads. Cold compressing with ice may reduce swelling and pain.

Other causes of lump on elbow

Any of the following conditions can cause a lump on elbow:


Sebaceous cysts are very common and can occur anywhere on the skin. A sebaceous cyst develops when sebaceous glands clog with sebum. Typically, these cysts are not painful and are slightly movable if pressed. You can also get a hard lump under the chin or on the vulva due to a sebaceous cyst. Ganglion cysts can also form on elbow joint. These cysts arise from inside of elbow tendon. Ganglion cysts are common causes of painful lump on top of foot. The starts when the cysts press against a nerve under skin.

Boils and abscesses

A boil is a lump that is filled with pus under skin. Boils are usually very painful. This is largely due to presence of bacteria. Large boils are known as abscesses. They are encouraged by broken skin and sores.


Hematoma refers to clotted blood under skin. Blood clots form after an injury such as hitting your elbow against a hard surface. Staphylococcus bacteria may infect the formed blood clot. Hematomas can be improved with warm compress.


Lipoma is describes a fatty lump that forms under the skin. Lipomas are not harmful or painful. A lipoma can be pea-sized or form a large soft lump up to 1 inch in diameter. The lump feels rubbery and movable when touched. X-ray images may be required to confirm a soft lump on elbow diagnosis due to lipoma. It is common to find a pea sized lump in scrotum caused by lipoma.

Arthritis and gout

Rheumatoid arthritis is most common in the elbow joint. It is a degenerative disease that develops when immune system attacks healthy joint tissues. Rheumatoid arthritis forms painless nodules on affected joints. Another type of arthritis that can cause hard lump on elbow joint is known as osteoarthritis. Gout is closely related to rheumatoid arthritis. If occurs due to accumulation of uric acid on joints. Nodules or lumps caused by gout are usually painful. Other than on elbows, a hard lump behind knee and on finger joints can develop due to arthritis.

Lateral epicondylitis

The exact cause of this condition is not known. It results in inflammation of the outer part of elbow. The inflamed region may also form a sore and become tender. In most cases, the formed swollen lump will be painful.

Skin infections and conditions

Skin conditions and infections can also lead to formation of bumps on elbow. A good example is psoriasis. Psoriasis occurs when dead skin layers fail to shed and instead pile on skin. A closely related skin condition is known as eczema. Irritants and allergens may cause trauma on elbow skin. If severe, swollen lumps will form on elbow.

Injuries and fractures

  • Injury – can occur on any part or structure of the elbow joint. Some injuries such as due to insect bites will occur on outer elbow skin. Note that injuries can occur at any joint or bone. A good example is a lump under rib cage center caused by injured xiphoid process.
  • Fractures – a hard lump on elbow can develop after a bone fracture inside elbow. Lumps due to bone fractures are usually very painful.
  • Dislocation – bones interlock in a very harmonious way at a joint. They are held together by ligaments. Synovial fluid serves the task of reducing friction between bones at a joint. Dislocation occurs when one or more bones move out of its place.
  • Sprain – ligaments are structures that attach tissues to bones. A sprain occurs when a ligament is torn or stretched.
  • Strain – tendons are structures that attach muscles to bones. A strain occurs when a tendon or a muscle stretches or tears. This can happen over time or suddenly.

Malignant tumors

It is highly unlikely that a lump on elbow will show signs of malignancy. Melanoma cells can however start on any skin region. In most cases, melanoma lumps are irregularly shaped and with rough tops. Most of them are red or brown in color.

Other than melanoma, malignant tumors can start in elastic tissues of the body and spread. A good example is esophageal cancer, which is mostly characterized by lump in throat when swallowing.

Treatment for lump on elbow

Treatment of elbow lumps depends on their cause. A number of tests and exams may be required to confirm diagnosis.

Fluid on the elbow lump caused by swollen bursa can be treated with anti-inflammatory medications. Rarely will surgical removal be necessary. In fact, the lump will go away even without treatment.

Cysts are usually not harmful. They can however press against a nerve and cause pain. Cysts also do not disappear completely if not removed. A cyst can be drained or injected with corticosteroids. Surgical removal completely removes a cyst and reduces its chances of recurring.

Infected lumps on elbow require treatment with antibiotics. Antibiotics will however not treat the underlying cause.

Arthritis is not curable but can be managed with medications. Your doctor will prescribe the best medications, depending on the severity of the disease.

Lumps due to injuries and bone fractures are best treated in a hospital. Bone fractures can for example limit elbow joint movement or cause a form of deformity after recovery.

Malignant tumors can be surgically removed or treated through chemotherapy and radiation therapy. In most cases, cancer lumps are not accompanied by noticeable symptoms in early stages. This makes it very hard to diagnose and treat the disease.

At home, you can try cold compressing on painful or bleeding elbow lumps. Cold compress shrinks blood vessels, thus reducing bleeding as well as easing pain and swelling.

When to see a doctor

If you are convinced that a lump on your elbow is benign, you can let it resolve without medical treatment. A fatty lump due to lipoma is a good example.

See your doctor if signs of infection or malignancy are to be noticed. Signs of infection include fever, chills, fatigue, pus formation and swollen lymph nodes. Malignancy is characterized by lumps which keep growing in size.