You never know where you’ll be when someone needs first aid. The recovery position is one way bystanders can help until first responders arrive.

Medical emergencies can happen anywhere at any time. They can result from progressive conditions or random circumstances. When they happen, the first aid knowledge of the people on the scene can make a difference.

Even if you aren’t skilled in cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), understanding less intense care techniques like the recovery position can help someone in an unconscious state stay as stable as possible until help arrives.

The recovery position has been a staple of first aid for decades. It’s the specific positioning of an unconscious or unresponsive person to:

  • keep their airway open and draining
  • lower their chance of aspiration
  • reduce chest pressure
  • limit neck movement

Originally, the recovery position was left side only. People thought this would decrease the chance of vomiting.

Over the years, however, either side has become acceptable. The goal is airway preservation above all else. Taking great effort to roll someone to the left when they could more easily move to the right, for example, may not be in their best interests.

The exception to this rule is pregnant people. People must place them on their left side when possible to maintain proper blood flow to the baby.

The recovery position process can help move someone as gently as possible in a way that people can universally learn and apply.

While there are small variations to how people teach it, it generally involves several steps. You can follow the steps here as though you’re placing someone on their left side.

  1. Turn their head gently to the left, and check for breathing and a pulse. Check inside their mouth to see if a visible airway obstruction may be removable.
  2. Gently extend their left arm away from their body at a right angle, on the floor, with their palm up.
  3. Place their right palm down on the ground above their left shoulder. This arm will cushion their face when you turn them.
  4. Bend their right knee at a right angle and gently turn their body to the left side. Take care of their head when turning them.
  5. Place their right knee gently on the ground, keeping it at a right angle to their body. People in larger bodies may benefit from a small pillow or roll under their knee for better support.
  6. Raise their chin gently to open their airway. Use their right hand to cushion their face and maintain the position.
  7. Monitor breathing until first responders arrive.

Call emergency services as soon as possible. The recovery position shouldn’t replace professional medical care. Even if someone regains responsiveness, they may still need additional care.

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Illustration by Paul Lawrence

Even babies sometimes have medical emergencies, and their version of the recovery position is a part of infant first aid.

You can perform it with one of two methods:

Holding the baby

  1. Hold the baby on their side, in your arms, with their head slightly lower than their stomach.
  2. Keep the back of your hand under their mouth and nose to monitor breathing (you can wet your hand to increase its sensitivity).
  3. Make sure you keep the baby warm with a coat or a blanket.

Not holding the baby

  1. Position the baby on their side, using a blanket or another soft option to keep their head slightly lower than their stomach.
  2. Monitor their breathing.
  3. Keep the baby warm with a coat or a blanket.

People typically use the recovery position for conditions of unconsciousness when breathing may be weak, such as:

Those with chronic breathing difficulties or lower back pain may find that the recovery position is also helpful for sleeping comfort.

When should you not use the recovery position?

Experts don’t recommend the recovery position — or moving someone at all — if there might be a spinal cord, head, or neck injury.

As always, there’s an exception to this rule. The American Red Cross indicates the recovery position may be necessary under these conditions if you can’t stay with the person or if their original position causes an airway blockage.

If you need to move them, stabilize the head, neck, and spine when positioning them on their side.

How long can someone stay in the recovery position?

You can keep the person in the recovery position until emergency services arrive. But if the person’s injuries allow for it, every 30 minutes, you can roll the individual to their opposite side to relieve pressure on their bottom arm.

Despite its long history of use, the verdict is still out on whether or not the recovery position is truly beneficial. Most studies assessing it have been on healthy participants because it isn’t something experts can easily study in a real-world setting.

According to a 2022 research review, insufficient evidence exists for or against the recovery position to warrant changing current first aid guidelines.

This was also the opinion of the International Liaison Committee on Resuscitation in their 2020 International Consensus on First Aid Science with Treatment Recommendations.

In their position statement, the committee recommended that first aid responders continue using the recovery position due to insufficient evidence against its use.

What are the concerns about the recovery position?

A small 2017 study suggested the recovery position may get in the way of proper breathing assessment and delay the start of lifesaving CPR.

In the 2022 research review, the authors agreed this was an important consideration and that it’s a good idea to emphasize assessing someone’s responsiveness and the possible need for resuscitation before using the recovery position.

Learn more about when and when not to perform CPR.

The recovery position has existed for a long time, and experts continue teaching it in first aid courses worldwide.

While there’s uncertainty about its true benefits, it’s an easy-to-learn tool to have on hand if you need to provide first aid to someone unconscious.