Subacromial-subdeltoid bursitis

Last revised by Dr Joachim Feger on 09 Dec 2021

Subacromial-subdeltoid bursitis refers to the inflammation of the subacromial-subdeltoid bursa and is a common cause of shoulder pain.

It is quite common and one of the main causes of shoulder pain 1-4. Incidence increases with age. It is frequently seen in people with overhead activities.

  • baseball pitcher, spear thrower
  • tennis
  • factory workers / manual laborers
  • unstable os acromiale

Patients usually complain of localized pain and tenderness in the anterolateral part of the shoulder just underneath the acromion and acromioclavicular joint.

Chronic subacromial-subdeltoid bursitis can result in rotator cuff injury.

The pathological correlate of subacromial-subdeltoid bursitis is an inflammatory change of the bursa consistent with an increased amount of fluid and collagen formation e.g. as a result of excessive friction. Like other sorts of inflammatory conditions, subacromial-subdeltoid bursitis can be subdivided into "acute", "chronic" and "recurrent". The fluid can become hemorrhagic. In chronic bursitis, the wall becomes thicker due to the formation of collagen and might even calcify 2 and in a rare case scenario, rice bodies might be found 5. In case of an associated full-thickness rotator cuff tear, there will be a communication to the glenohumeral joint.

Subacromial bursitis may have the following causes 1-4.

The subacromial-subdeltoid bursa is proximally located deep to the overlying deltoid muscle and coracoacromial arch and superficial to the rotator cuff tendons and the rotator interval.  Distally it can be seen between the deltoid muscle and the humeral shaft 2,3.

Subacromial-subdeltoid bursitis will be mostly imaged on ultrasound and MRI and is then seen as fluid accumulation within the distended bursa.

X-rays are usually done to exclude other causes of shoulder pain e.g. calcific tendinitis.

Subacromial-subdeltoid bursitis is hypodense with an enhancing wall after contrast 2 but will be mostly an incidental finding on CT 2,3. Air inclusions might be found in the case of septic subacromial-subdeltoid bursitis 3. Calcium deposits might be found in concomitant calcific tendinitis 4.

On ultrasound, the bursa is seen as an anechoic fluid-filled distended structure, with a hyperechoic wall and sometimes synovial hypertrophy. In the case of hemorrhage, there might be hyperechoic blood 2-4.

On MRI subacromial-subdeltoid bursitis will be seen as a distended fluid-filled structure between the deltoid muscle and the acromion and the supraspinatus/infraspinatus tendons. In case of an associated full-thickness rotator cuff tear, there will be a communication to the glenohumeral joint.

Signal characteristics

  • T2: hyperintense
  • T1: hypointense
  • T1 C+ (Gd): hypointense with contrast enhancement of the synovial lining

The radiological report should include a description of the following:

  • signs of bursitis that is distension of the bursa and possible rim enhancement
  • communications with the glenohumeral or acromioclavicular joint
  • comment on associated findings in particular rotator cuff injury
  • risk factors and signs of subacromial impingement e.g. hooked acromion, anterior and/or lateral downslope, acromioclavicular joint arthrosis, os acromiale

Subacromial-subdeltoid bursitis is usually managed conservatively with activity modification, physical therapy, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and corticosteroid injections and most patients respond to conservative therapy. Surgical management can be done arthroscopically or with an open approach is reserved for conservative treatment failure in defiant cases.

  • infection after steroid injection (rarely)

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Cases and figures

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