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“Supine” vs. Prone”: Laying Out The Differences Between Them

light blue text on dark blue background: supine vs. prone

Prone and supine are both used in medical and anatomical contexts to describe a position in which a person is lying down, but they refer to different ways of facing—either face up or face down.

In this article, we’ll break down the difference and provide clear explanations of other medical positions.

Quick summary

A person in a supine position is lying flat on their back (face up); a person in a prone position is lying flat on their front (face down). These terms are used in medical and anatomical contexts to be precise about body position. Outside of these contexts, they have other meanings, including more general and figurative ones.

What is a supine position?

In medical and anatomical contexts, supine position is the body position in which a person is lying flat on their back, face up. It’s the preferred position for certain types of surgeries and procedures (such as intracranial, cardiac, abdominal, endovascular, and laparoscopic procedures), as well as some examinations (such as of the lower limbs, neck, and face).

When supine is applied to the hand, it means palm up.

Outside of medical contexts, supine is used figuratively to mean inactive, passive, or inert (based on the image of someone lying flat on their back and doing nothing).

What is a prone position?

In medical and anatomical contexts, prone position is the body position in which a person is lying flat on their front, face down. It’s the preferred position for many spine, neck, colon and rectal procedures.

When prone is applied to the hand, it means palm down.

In general use, prone can mean the same thing as the adjective prostrate—which usually means lying flat and face down but can also be used to simply mean lying down without regard to whether it’s face up or face down. Separately and perhaps most commonly, prone can be used as an adjective that means having a tendency or inclination to something, as in injury prone or He’s prone to hyperbole.

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Other medical positions

Doctors, physiologists, anatomists, and biologists all rely on standardized terms to precisely refer to the exact position of body parts. Such terms are used in the context of anatomical studies, surgeries, examinations, and other similar situations.

Along with supine and prone, other positions include:

 

  • anatomical position: the default pose, in which a person is standing upright with their face forward, their arms at their sides, and their palms and feet facing forward.
  • Trendelenburg position: a supine position with the patient inclined at an angle of 45 degrees, so that the pelvis is higher than the head.
  • Reverse Trendelenburg position: a supine position at an angle of 45 degrees, with the head at the top instead of the bottom.
  • lithotomy position (also called dorsosacral position): a supine position in which the hips and knees are fully flexed with the legs spread apart and raised and the feet resting in straps.
  • Sims’ position (also called lateral recumbent position): a position in which the patient lies on one side with the under arm behind the back and the upper thigh flexed.
  • Fowler’s position: an inclined position, in which the head of the bed is raised but the legs remain flat or slightly bent.

Other terms used to describe the position of body parts include:

 

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You may want to lie down before learning about the differences between inflation and deflation.

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