Clippers’ Griffin learns staph infection not something to play with

Los Angeles Clippers forward Blake Griffin played with his right elbow bandaged earlier this month before being diagnosed with staph infection and undergoing surgery. (AP Photo/Canadian Press, Nathan Denette)

Los Angeles Clippers forward Blake Griffin underwent surgery on his right elbow Monday to treat a staph infection. Griffin flew back to Los Angeles after a hospital evaluation Saturday. The team announced that Griffin’s elbow surgery, performed by Dr. Neal ElAttrache and Clippers’ team physician Dr. Steven Shimoyama, was successful.

Griffin’s infection comes at the peak of what has been one of his best seasons in the NBA. The forward out of Oklahoma was averaging 22.5 points and 7.5 rebounds per game. He was recently named to his fifth straight All-Star Game.

Griffin has dealt with elbow bursitis off and on throughout his career. According to reports from ESPN.com, Griffin has had his elbow drained several times this season, most recently one week prior to surgery when the Clippers played at Brooklyn. Griffin wore an elbow sleeve but continued to have symptoms. Clippers’ athletic trainer Jasen Powell sent him to the hospital, where a staph infection was reportedly found.

Griffin’s teammate Spencer Hawes was surprised by the seriousness of the injury. “We were kind of joking around with him when he didn’t have the pad on it how big it was getting,” Hawes told NBA.com. “Obviously, I don’t think anybody anticipated that was the cause. I’m just glad they caught it and got it taken care of.”

A staph infection of the elbow sounds scary, but Griffin’s condition is probably more common than most people realize. The olecranon bursa is a fluid-filled sac on the tip of the elbow. In most people without infection or inflammation of this bursa, it isn’t even noticeable. When fluid accumulates within the bursa, a large amount of swelling can easily be seen on the back of the elbow.

Olecranon bursitis often develops without an infection. Prolonged repeated pressure to this area can irritate the bursa, causing inflammation and swelling. A truck driver who frequently rests his elbow on the window of his truck is a good example.

Fortunately most cases of olecranon bursitis resolve without surgery. Avoiding direct pressure on the tip of the elbow, wearing elbow pads, or taking anti-inflammatory medications can often relieve pain and swelling. In longer standing cases, an orthopaedic surgeon might try to drain fluid from the bursa or inject cortisone into the bursa to decrease inflammation. Rarely, surgery to remove the bursa is required if swelling and pain persist.

Occasionally a more urgent septic olecranon bursitis develops. Trauma to the elbow, such as a cut, puncture wound or insect bite, can infect the elbow. In other instances, patients can develop redness and warmth of this bursa without an obvious source of infection.

Sometimes a short course of antibiotics can treat the infected bursa, but often surgery is needed to prevent the spread of the infection up the arm or into the bloodstream. The surgeon opens up the tip of the elbow, removes the bursa, and washes out the area. The patient often remains in the hospital overnight for intravenous antibiotics before going home on one to two weeks of oral antibiotics.

Recovery from the surgery is fairly quick. The surgeon allows gentle elbow range of motion while allowing the incision to heal. The patient gradually increases his activity, with return to full duties often possible within three to four weeks. Athletes and manual laborers often wear an elbow sleeve or pad to protect the area.

After the surgery, Clippers’ head coach Doc Rivers said that Griffin could likely start conditioning in two weeks, but he was unsure when his star could return to the court. “It’s the unknown,” Rivers told NBA.com. “Sprained ankle, 10 days. With infections, infections are infections. You’ve just got to be very careful. You cannot mess around with it.”

Fortunately for Blake Griffin, the Clippers’ medical staff didn’t mess around with it.

Dr. David Geier is an orthopaedic surgeon and sports medicine specialist in Charleston. For more information about injuries and other sports medicine topics, go to his blog at drdavidgeier.com.