How to perform the recovery position

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Find out how to use the recovery position by following the guide below. You can also check comprehensive guides on CPR for adults, children, infants and during pregnancy. Please note – this information is not a substitute for first aid training.

What is the recovery position & when is it used?

The recovery position, also known in medical terms as the lateral recumbent position, is used in first aid to protect a casualty’s airway. If a person is found unconscious or unresponsive but breathing, until emergency services arrive, the recovery position should be used to maintain the person’s airway.

The technique can be used in a variety of emergency situations. It could be that a person has fainted and lost consciousness for differing reasons or is found intoxicated and passed out due to alcohol or drugs.

Why is the recovery position used?

An unconscious but breathing person is not able to protect their airway. Left lying on their back, the casually is at risk of suffocation by obstruction of their airway due to two main reasons:

  • Physical obstruction – usually by means of the casualty’s own tongue. The unconscious state leads to a loss of muscle control which renders the casualty unable to keep their airway open. Without intervention, the tongue falls to the back of the throat preventing air from reaching the lungs.
  • Fluid obstruction – usually due to vomit or blood collecting at the back of the throat and flowing into the lungs because the unconscious person is not able to swallow or cough out such fluid.

Which side should be used – left or right?

Either side can be used. Do not waste time deciding which side may be better to use. If one side of the body is injured, use the alternate side.

Protection of the airway in an unconscious person takes priority over any injury. However, care must be taken to avoid any twisting or bending of the spinal column, especially the neck.

An exception is the treatment of a heavily pregnant casualty. Aim to roll them onto their left side. Doing so prevents the baby from compressing the main blood vessels in the casualty’s abdomen.  If this is not possible due to injury the casualty should be placed on the right-hand side with a towel or cushion wedged under the belly. 

Step-by-step guide

Step 1

With the casualty lying on their back kneel on the floor beside them. Place the nearest arm to you at a right angle.

Recovery position - step 1

Step 2

Take the casualty’s other arm and place it across their chest with their hand resting under their head and pressed against the cheek. Hold it in place.

Recovery position - step 2

Step 3

With your free hand, lift the casualty’s leg that is furthest from you till their foot is flat on the ground.

Recovery position - step 3

Step 4

Use their bent leg as a lever to roll them toward you. The casualty’s mouth should be opened and head turned slightly downwards to allow any obvious fluid to drain.

Recovery position - step 4
The same 4 step process for the recovery position is used for a child and pregnant casualty. 
Child and pregnant woman recovery position

Recovery position for an infant

Infant recovery position

Recovery position chart (printable A2 & smaller)

Other CPR Resources

Visit the Australia Wide First Aid CPR Library for even more information, guides and downloadable resources.

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