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What is the Supine Position?

Tricia Christensen
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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One thing most people don’t consider when they’re planning to have surgery is exactly how they’ll be positioned on the surgical table when the operation takes place. Many assume that they’ll be lying flat on their backs, which is called the supine position. There are many other positions that might be used depending on type of surgery and access needed while the surgery is ongoing.

Someone in the supine position is on his or her back, in almost a completely flat position. He or she might have a pillow under the head or under some type of the body to promote greater comfort. In many positions during surgery, people’s bodies are secured to the table with some form of strap, and strap placement might depend on where the actual surgery will take place. A strap around the waist might be appropriate for chest surgeries, such as many types of heart or neck surgeries. The strap might be placed higher on the body if access is needed to the abdominal cavity, pelvis or legs.

When the patient is on his or her back, it is sometimes necessary to move the table, not the patient. When people are lying supine with the table tilted so the head is lowered, this is called the Trendelenburg position. The Fowler position has the patient lie supine with the head elevated, not necessarily with a full tilt of the table. One concern with supine positions is the potential to cause breathing issues with certain patients, and the Fowler might address this.

Another variation can be seen when the knees are bent, with the feet still placed on the table. This is referred to as the dorsal recumbent position, and it is used for many different surgeries or exams. Women might labor in some form of the dorsal recumbent position, or they may be put in this position during a pelvic exam. If the head is elevated, the dorsal recumbent might be named the jackknife.

People do not always lie on their backs, and access to the body might be needed by fully switching or changing position halfway. People could lie in lateral decubitus positions and be on their right or left sides. Sometimes, a surgery needs to be performed prone, which means a person lies on the stomach, instead. If access to things like the spine is needed, this position may be preferable.

It may be possible to gain access to the area of the body requiring surgery from a variety of positions. Surgeons may choose based on patient health, other medical conditions, and personal preference.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a The Health Board contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By anon165458 — On Apr 05, 2011

the position is most important, not the surgery, i.e., Can you operate on a knee when he/she is in the prone position. Don't think so.

By Kalley — On Feb 03, 2011

It's strange how easy it is to get stuck in that mindset of all surgery being done in the supine position. I know when I had to have neck surgery, I was surprised when they told me that I would actually be having the surgery sitting up -- it just seemed so counterintuitive. It's one of those things that seems somehow intuitively strange, but really makes sense when you think about it. I guess that's the power of TV!

By elizabeth2 — On Feb 01, 2011

I had never really thought about surgical positioning before, though it totally makes sense. I know it's not real, but in every television show and movie I've ever seen, people have been in what I now know to be the supine position, during surgery.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a The Health Board contributor, Tricia...
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