Monday Medical: Preventing, treating finger loss |

Monday Medical: Preventing, treating finger loss

Susan Cunningham
For Steamboat Pilot & Today

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — It can happen more easily than you may think: you’re chopping vegetables for dinner or clearing snow from your snowblower, and all of a sudden, you’ve cut through a finger.

Dr. Patrick Johnston, a hand and elbow orthopedic surgeon in Steamboat Springs and a member of the medical staff at UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center, describes how to prevent and treat finger losses below.

Snowblower injuries

One of the biggest culprits when it comes to finger losses is the snowblower. But preventing these injuries is easy: never unclog your snowblower with your hand.

“People will reach in to get the snow out of it, then the snowblower will spin and take off their fingers and mangle their hand,” Johnston said. “Snowblower injuries are really disastrous. There’s not much we can do after a snowblower gets a hand.”

Instead, turn off the snowblower, wait 10 seconds, then use a heavy stick or plastic shovel to clear the snow. Don’t use a thin stick, as it may splinter and cause other injuries.

Never reach a hand in a clogged snowblower, even if it’s turned off, as the blades may spin once the snow is cleared.

Kitchen injuries

Another common way to lose a finger is through preparing food. From Johnston’s experience, one of the riskiest foods is the avocado: if you try to remove the pit by hitting it with the knife, you can miss the pit or struggle to get it off the knife.

“Listen to what your mother would say — be careful with the use of sharp objects,” Johnston said.

Always keep knives away from children, and make sure your knives are sharp. Dull knives are dangerous because they’re unpredictable: they can require more force at first, then slip through food faster than expected.

And try removing those avocado pits with a spoon.

Power tool injuries

The most common power tool injuries are caused by table saws. “A table saw can quickly cause a lot of damage, resulting in injuries that may be difficult to heal from,” Johnston said. “Always use a guard with a table saw.”

What to do if the worst happens

If you cut through your finger, wrap it in a moist paper towel or gauze, seal it in a bag, then put that bag in another bag on ice. Hold pressure on the wound and head to the hospital, bringing the finger with you.

“Proper care of the amputated finger on the way to hospital improves chances for replantation,” Johnston said.

Successful reattachments

“Depending on where the finger is cut, how it was cut and if more than one finger was lost, there are different protocols for whether we can try to reattach it,” Johnston said.

A clean cut or a cut at the base of the finger make a successful reattachment more likely.

An adult who loses a single finger through the middle joint may not be a candidate for a reattachment, as it may not be successful. However, if multiple digits are lost or a child loses a finger, reattachment will probably be recommended.

Don’t ignore small finger cuts

A small but deep cut can severe tendons and nerves but may be hard to notice.

“Something as innocuous as a small cut on the side of the finger can mean big surgeries and problems for the finger,” Johnston said. “It’s always important to get it evaluated right away.”

When repairing nerves, Johnston prefers to operate within one week of the injury. Waiting too long can result in loss of the finger.

The least valuable finger

On a lighter note, if you had your pick of which finger to lose, Johnston recommends the index finger.

“The small finger and ring finger are important for grip, but everything you do with the index finger can be done with the long finger,” Johnston said. “The index finger is probably the least valuable finger on the hand.”

Susan Cunningham writes for UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center. She can be reached at

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