When Should I Worry About...

Dangers in the Kitchen: The Most Common Hand Injuries & Tips for Avoiding Them

May 21, 2024 - Daniel Brown

Obviously, cooking isn't my day job, but I can whip up a mean meal. I enjoy my time in the kitchen and consider myself comfortable with the tools and utensils available to the home chef.

Maybe a little too comfortable, I recently realized, when a serious blunder required a trip to urgent care and several post-injury visits.

Before I explain any further, consider this your warning. Everyone who has asked about my injury seems to have the same reaction — the shoulders come up, the face scrunches and the head turns — and that's without even seeing it. So continue reading at your own risk.

I was using a mandolin slicer. You may have one or at least seen one on cooking shows: they allow you to slice food into very uniform pieces. I was slicing a russet potato — this is usually where people physically react — and the ring finger of my right hand somehow got in the way. I managed to slice off some of the fingertip, nail and a little of the side toward the end of my finger.

A nearby urgent care clinic stopped the bleeding, then told me to follow up with my primary doctor. Just to be safe, my primary care doctor referred me to Dr. Korsh Jafarnia, an orthopedic surgeon specializing in hand and elbow injuries. There, a physician assistant determined the wound would heal on its own in time, though it would need some special care in the ensuing few weeks.

When she mentioned the office has seen several mandolin slicing injuries, I wanted to know more.

Top hand injuries that happen in the kitchen

According to Dr. Jafarnia, while they have seen their share of mandolin injuries, there are a couple of other injuries they see more often, including:

  • Avocado slicing hand injuries
  • Bagel slicing hand injuries

There is a good chance you've experienced one of these yourself to one degree of severity or another.

Avocado slicing injuries hit the top of the list. I'm sure you've done it — held that avocado in your hand while slicing around the seed to open it up. The knife slips, and you end up with a cut. In fact, in 2019, the American Journal of Emergency Medicine published a paper titled, "Avocado-related knife injuries: Describing an epidemic of hand injury." The publication linked the rise in avocado-related knife injuries to the rise in popularity of avocados.

Similarly, bagel-slicing injuries also commonly bring patients to Dr. Jarania's office. These typically occur when people hold the bagel in their hand while slicing toward their palm. According to data from the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System, hundreds of Americans go to the hospital each year with bagel-slicing related injuries.

When to get medical attention after a kitchen injury

At that painful and potentially queasy moment of injury, it can be hard to decide if you should get medical attention or not, but there are some clear tip-offs.

"If you think tendons, nerves and bone may be involved, you should get to the emergency room," says Dr. Jafarnia.

Exposed bone and active bleeding you can't control should also be handled by a medical professional.

"If you aren't comfortable handling the wound on your own, seek medical attention," Dr. Jafarnia says. "It is better to be safe than sorry."

The emergency room or urgent care should refer you to a hand specialist if they think you need one. If they don't but you're still concerned, talk to your primary care physician or schedule directly with a hand specialist.

The extent of the injury will determine the treatment — some injuries will heal on their own, others will require surgery. Still, err on the side of caution.

"Some minor injuries especially in the hand can have serious consequences, so it is always good to have those looked at," says Jennifer Ogle, Dr. Jafarnia's physician assistant.

Time can be an enemy for these injuries. "We can do a lot to mitigate the damage and repair it, but that has to be done quickly," Dr. Jafarnia warns. "If too much time passes, we may not be able to get your hand back to what it was before."

How to avoid hand injuries in the kitchen

No one starts dinner expecting to hurt themselves — injuries can happen to the most experienced and trained chefs — but here are a few things you can do to reduce your chance of these common injuries:

For cutting avocados, use a cutting board rather than holding it in your hand.

You can also use a cutting board for the bagel. If you insist on holding the bagel in your hand while cutting, at the very least slice away from your palm rather than toward it.

And for those who enjoy the uniform slices of the mandolin, use one that has a plastic chute and plunger style device to keep your hand out of the way.

You might also consider cut resistant gloves. They can help prevent injury in all three scenarios. I've already ordered mine, and my mandolin is staying in the cabinet for a while.

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