Tips for Avoiding Common Hand Injuries

Cut hand, broken fingers, torn ligaments, sprained joints and the like are no fun – and many are often easily prevented.

By Dr. Donald M. Lewis

Hand injury | Muir Orthopaedic Specialists | Walnut Creek, CA | doctor treating injured handYour hands do a lot of things for you. They probably even help you read this blog, by scrolling with the fingers, holding that smartphone, moving that mouse.

Of course, those things rarely result in injury. But you’re always putting your hands in all sorts of compromising situations that can damage them. There are more than a million hand injuries medically treated each year in the United States. If you count the number of people that do not seek medical treatment for their hand injury, that number would be much higher.

I repair my fair share of those injuries, treating sprains, broken fingers, torn ligaments, pulled muscles, bruised palms, sliced tendons, crushed nerves and amputations.

I have specialized training and a great deal of experience in orthopedic treatment for hand injuries. That includes separate fellowships in hand/microsurgery and sports medicine. Whenever possible, I treat hand injuries with minimally invasive surgical repair or nonsurgical procedures. And I have seen and repaired many different types of hand injuries.

Some can be unsettling. It would be better if I did not see so many of the injuries people could have prevented with a little knowledge (and perhaps more common sense). You can’t do anything about a broken wrist in a car crash. But many hand injuries can be avoided.

Hands get hurt at work a lot, accounting for about 20 percent of disabling injuries in the workplace. Lacerations lead the way, followed by crushes, avulsions (a piece of bone ripped from the whole bone by a tendon or ligament), punctures and fractures. Most of these injuries involve equipment, from a wire cutter to a woodworking lathe. Your workplace should have a safety program and safety gear to avoid hand injuries. But it’s also up to each person to watch out for their hands.

Hand injuries also happen often in sports activities – about 25 percent of all sports injuries involve the hand. This is particularly true for sports involving contact, high speeds, weight bearing (gymnastics, boxing) and hand-held equipment. Of course, work projects around the house can injure one’s hands, as can accidental falls.

Hold your hand away from dangers

You can do things to avoid injuries, whether cutting an avocado or using a table saw. Below are some common hand injuries and how to avoid them. I’m also including some tips on things you can do to prevent hand injuries in general.

Cutting an avocado

I see a lot of these injuries. Guacamole must be very popular, but a lot of people face danger when they take an avocado into their hands. Cutting a nerve is the most common injury I see from this. The knife’s sharp, the avocado’s mostly round and that’s a dangerous combination. Here’s what you do:

  • Don’t hold the avocado in your hand when you cut it
    • It may feel like the natural way to go about it, and it may look chef-like, but don’t
  • Put the avocado on a cutting board
  • Stabilize it with your fingers, positioned away from the path of the blade, and slice it lengthwise around the pit.

Power tools

Drills, chain saws, nail guns, paint or grease guns and sanding belts make many tasks easier, while also making them more dangerous. That applies to hand-held power tools and stationary ones, like a table saw. My advice:

  • Never disable the safety device on a table or circular saw
    • People do it for efficiency, but losing a finger is not very inefficient
  • Use extra caution with nail, paint or grease guns and be sure to know where it is aimed at all times
  • Read the instructions
  • Make sure you’re lighting is good
  • Keep your fingers away from the on/off switch
  • Your work area should be uncluttered
  • Use clamps when possible.

Don’t hold a nail while hammering it

  • Hold it with needle nose pliers
  • It’ll save your thumb and index finger

Taking a tumble

  • Don’t put your hand out in a fall; try to roll on your arm and shoulder
    • Skiers and snowboarders often do this catching the front edge
    • They can come up with “skier’s thumb” (torn thumb ligament)
    • Drop your ski poles to avoid overextending your thumb

Hand injury prevention basics

The above advice applies to specific, common hand injuries. Here are more tips of a general preventive nature.

The right gloves for the right task

About 60 percent of hand injuries in the workplace can be prevented by using good gloves. Same goes for at home.

  • Use leather gloves, cut-resistant gloves or chemical-resistant gloves, depending on the task
  • Remove bracelets and jewelry
  • Don’t use gloves that can get caught in machinery
  • Make sure the gloves are your size

Knife know how

  • Keep knives sharp
    • A dull knife can slip while cutting something and cut you instead
    • A sharp knife is easier to control
    • People are more careful with a sharp knife
  • In chopping, curl your fingers under and use your flat knuckles as a knife guide
  • No freestyling: Use a cutting board and stabilize it

Slow down & wise up

  • Reduce the speed of repetitive movements in sports and other activities, like hammering
  • Approach dangerous tasks with caution, not speed
  • Know and follow all safety measures for the activity or sport
  • Use protective gear in sports, such as wrist guards in roller skating and hockey gloves
  • Pay attention and don’t be careless

Get the mechanics right

  • Do exercises to strengthen hand muscles and promote flexibility of the wrists and fingers
    • Tendon stretches
    • Finger strengthening for better grip
  • Grip with your whole hand to prevent stressing the wrist
  • Know how to safely use tools, especially the safety features

If you follow these tips, hopefully you won’t need to see me or another orthopedist. But if you do injure your hand, we can get you back in shape with treatment and physical therapy if necessary.