Most of us have practiced putting an unconscious person into the recovery position. But it's easy to get confused if it's been a while since you had a first-aid course. What moves do you need to know when it comes down to it? And when is it even important to put somebody into the recovery position?
Recovery position – When and why?
If somebody is unconscious but still breathing normally on their own, they should be put into the recovery position. That stops blood and vomit from entering the mouth, reaching the airways and stopping the person from breathing.
You can tell if somebody is unconscious but still breathing normally by approaching the person and speaking to them loudly and clearly. You might say something like: “Hello! Can you hear me?” If they don’t react, gently shake their shoulder as if you were trying to wake them up. If they still don’t react then, they are unconscious. Then quickly check their breathing. Hold your ear over the unconscious person’s mouth and nose and watch their chest: If you can hear regular breathing sounds, can feel their breath and see their chest moving up and down, they are breathing normally. If they aren't, they need immediate resuscitation! That is also true if their breathing appears to be abnormal: irregular, very deep, slow, or with a snoring sound.
How do you put someone into the recovery position?
We will explain the process in more detail here so that you can picture each step clearly. You will find a brief summary of everything at the end.
Step 1: Kneel down and put the hand nearest to you into position
Lay the unconscious person down on their back with their legs stretched out.
Kneel down beside their upper body. Tip: Right-handed people should kneel at the person’s right side (with their feet then pointing to the right); and vice versa for left-handed people.
Put the arm that is right in front of you into a bent position. It should lie on the ground next to the person roughly at right angles in the shoulder and elbow. The palm of the hand should be facing upwards.
How to position the arm closest to you
Step 2: Position and hold the hand furthest away from you
Now place the other arm across their chest.
Place the hand close to the person’s face so that the hand rests against the cheek closest to you.
You will have to hold their hand in place. If you are right-handed and are kneeling at the person’s right side (see image), use your left hand to do this to keep your right hand free for the next steps.
How to position the arm furthest away from you
Step 3: Get everything ready and then roll
Take hold of the thigh that is furthest away from you with your right hand and pull it upwards so that their leg is propped up at an angle. It can help to hold on to their clothing.
Hold of the person’s thigh so that you can now easily roll them over towards you.
The person should be lying like this before you roll them towards you
Step 4: Stable position and airways clear
After rolling them over, the person will automatically be lying on their side. The leg furthest away from you is now on top. By having propped it up earlier, it is now drawn in at the waist and the thigh is pointing roughly at a right angle away from the trunk. The person's lower legs are lying on the ground parallel to each other. You can now correct the position of the legs if they slipped when you rolled the person over.
Now tilt the person’s head back.
Carefully push their chin down a little to leave their mouth slightly open and the airways clear.
After being rolled over, the hand of the arm that is now on top is resting below the unconscious person’s head and keeping it stabilized. If it isn't, carefully slide that hand into the correct position under their head. Make sure that the person's airways are clear.
The person is in the recovery position
All the steps at a glance
For emergencies, here is a summary of all of the steps in one image. You can print it out or save it on your mobile phone.
What to do next after putting the person in the recovery position
Call the emergency services (112 in Germany and many other countries; 911 in the U.S.) unless someone else has in the meantime. Cover the unconscious person so they don't get too cold, using a thermal blanket for instance. Stay with them until the emergency services arrive and make sure that they are still breathing normally the whole time. If it takes longer than half an hour for the emergency services to arrive, roll the unconscious person over onto the other side.
If they stop breathing normally, immediately roll the unconscious person onto their back again and start resuscitation.
IQWiG health information is written with the aim of helping people understand the advantages and disadvantages of the main treatment options and health care services.
Because IQWiG is a German institute, some of the information provided here is specific to the German health care system. The suitability of any of the described options in an individual case can be determined by talking to a doctor. informedhealth.org can provide support for talks with doctors and other medical professionals, but cannot replace them. We do not offer individual consultations.
Our information is based on the results of good-quality studies. It is written by a team of health care professionals, scientists and editors, and reviewed by external experts. You can find a detailed description of how our health information is produced and updated in our methods.
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