By C. Noel Henley, MD
Each year, thousands of people carve pumpkins into jack-o-lanterns for Halloween. The world record for number of pumpkins carved was set in 2006 in Boston. Some of the designs might be considered an extreme art form!
Throughout the years, while the object carved and the faces created have varied, one thing has stayed consistent – something sharp must be used to cut these things up!
Hand surgeons often treat people in early November who have cut their hand while carving a pumpkin.
Most injuries are minor – a shallow cut that will heal on its own or with some simple sutures. However, only a few fractions of an inch separate a small cut from a larger, potentially devastating hand injury – a cut tendon or nerve that will not heal without surgery and a long recovery process. Additionally, even a small cut can become infected if not cared for correctly.
These simple tips and guidelines will help you avoid a disastrous hand injury this fall.
1. Keep your work area clean, dry and well-lit
Any water or moisture on the table, cutting tools, or your hands, can cause you to slip with the knife and cut your hand or someone nearby.
Make sure all working surfaces and your knife handle are dry. Don’t handle the slippery pumpkin flesh with your bare hands and then grab the knife to keep cutting. You may even want to use gloves with good rubberized grips when you are cutting.
2. Sharper isn’t always better
Generally, sharper knives give you more control when cutting up food in the kitchen, but carving a pumpkin is different in many ways.
A sharper knife may become more deeply wedged in the pumpkin, and it will take a much larger force to pull it out. Obviously you want to avoid strong, sudden forceful movements with a sharp knife to avoid injury.
If the knife is sharp (and long) enough, it may travel clear through the pumpkin and out the other side, where you might be stabilizing it with your other hand.
3. Be Patient!
Maybe this one is just common sense, but we’ve all been around excited kids at Halloween whose enthusiasm tends to drive parents batty (so to speak).
Take your time and make sure you’re carving in a controlled, deliberate, unhurried manner. Trust me, spending six months of your life recovering from a nerve or tendon injury is not an enjoyable experience. You’ve got better things to do!
4. Let adults do the carving
Adults can injure themselves as well as kids, but experience with a knife does reduce the risk of injury. Carving should be done in short, controlled strokes with even pressure, always cutting away from yourself or your hands.
Adults should be supervising any pumpkin carving activity involving teenagers or children. Never leave children unsupervised when knives are involved.
There are plenty of jobs for kids to do during pumpkin carving season. They can create designs for the faces and draw them out on each pumpkin with permanent marker. Children can take turns scooping out seeds from each pumpkin with a large spoon, or putting the cut up pieces into a bowl.
5. Prepare for success and safety
The right preparation, the right tools, and the right pumpkin carving techniques will improve safety and the quality of your jack-o-lantern project.
A specialized scraping tool may help you thin out the pumpkin walls. This lets you create more sophisticated designs and greatly improves the safety of the process. The thinner the walls, the less resistance you’ll have to push through as you carve the pumpkin.
A specialized saw or pumpkin cutting tool is a safer way to cut the pumpkin wall and avoid injury. These are not expensive and are available online and in local stores.
Bonus tip – don’t get burned!
Some pumpkin artists recommend cutting the bottom out of the pumpkin instead of the top. That way you can lower the pumpkin down onto a candle without reaching your hand down inside and risking burning yourself with a lit match or lighter.
Getting help after a pumpkin carving injury
Most cuts or injuries to the hand or fingers will stop bleeding after 5 to 10 minutes with some firm pressure with a clean dishcloth or paper towel. A visit to the emergency room or a doctor may be the best solution if the cut is very deep or does not stop bleeding.
Signs of a more seriously damaged finger or hand include numbness in the fingertip or noticing that your finger won’t bend or straighten normally. In some situations, early treatment may be necessary to prevent serious infection.
Your treating physician will usually be able to tell if it’s appropriate to send you to see a hand surgeon. Most hand injuries that require surgery need to be evaluated by a hand surgeon no later than 5 to 7 days after the injury.
Source: C. Noel Henley, MD