Yes, pumpkin carving is fun. But it can turn Halloween into a nightmare, too. Just ask Brad Gruner, starting quarterback for the University of New Mexico’s football team. Last year, his season ended when he cut a tendon in his throwing hand while carving a pumpkin. And for Anita Lo, owner of the West Village Restaurant Annisa, a similar accident in her teens reportedly dashed her hopes of becoming a pianist. Such injuries come as no surprise to emergency room physicians and hand surgeons who see them in droves this time of year.
“The most common accidents associated with pumpkin carving are stab wounds to the fingers and palm,” said Stuart J. Elkowitz, M.D., a hand surgeon at Somers Orthopaedic Surgery & Sports Medicine Group in Carmel, N.Y., who repairs the resulting gashes every Halloween. It’s often the index finger that’s punctured, causing damage to tendons, nerves, or arteries, says Elkowitz.
His experience is confirmed by research: Injuries to the hand and fingers are the most common accidents on Halloween, and a third of those are cuts, according to a study published last year in the journal Pediatrics.
Pumpkins can be both slippery and tough, a recipe for accidents. Cuts can occur when a knife sticks in the rind, then abruptly dislodges as you tug it out, slicing your supporting hand. Or you can cut yourself if the handle gets slippery with pumpkin pulp, causing your hand to slide down the blade as you push the knife into the pumpkin.
So how can you avoid a Halloween butchering?
Use the right tools. Consumer Reports tested pumpkin-carving kits a few years ago and observed that one advantage of the specialty tools—readily found online and in convenience stores—was that they can saw through rinds, poke holes, and scoop out innards without being razor-sharp. The instruments were also generally small, which made them easier to control than knives and easier to use when making intricate cuts.
Carve before taking off the top of the pumpkin. “That way you won’t be tempted to put your hand inside and cut toward your hand,” advises Dr. Elkowitz, who also recommends stabilizing the pumpkin by holding the top and pointing the blade down.
Take precautions. That means carving in a clean, dry, and well-lit area, keeping your hands and tools clean and dry, and taking your time.
Don’t let kids carve. The Pediatrics study found that most Halloween accidents happen to kids ages 10 to 14. So don’t let children 14 and younger do the actual carving. Instead, have them draw the pattern with a marker and clean out the pulp and seeds with their hands or a spoon—but make sure an adult does the actual cutting. It’s important to supervise older teens, too. Dr. Elkowitz notes that adolescents often become patients because parents feel they’re responsible enough to be left on their own. So have them use pumpkin-carving kits or, if you think they are responsible enough to use knives, make sure they use short-handled ones, and that the knives are kept clean and dry.
Hand Surgeons Warn of Pumpkin Carving Dangers [American Society of Hand Surgeons]
Epidemiology of Pediatric Holiday-Related Injuries Presenting to US Emergency Departments [Pediatrics]
Halloween Safety Tips That Are No Trick [American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons]
Junior QB Brad Gruner Out For Season [You Tube]
Battle Scars From the Culinary Front [New York Times]
—Orly Avitzur, MD