Unconscious. What would you do?

Unconscious. What would you do?

by James Hubbard, MD, MPH

Here’s a scenario that happens more often than you might think. You come home from work and find your loved one lying unconscious on the floor in your house. What would you do?

Call 911? Sure. A#1 yes. But what can you do until first responders get there? Or what if they’re running late, or can’t get there at all? It happens. You need a system: First do this, then do this.

Okay, first thing after calling for help?

Your answer: _______________________


My answer:

  1. Make sure you’re safe. Yeah, if it’s your loved one you’re going to make a beeline but remember to look around. What if there’s an intruder, a wild animal? If you’re the next victim you’re not going to be of much help. Same thing when you’re stopping to help with a highway accident. Every year people get hurt when they open their door and a car slams into it.


Next? (Think about it before you read my suggestion.)

Your answer: ________________________


My answer:

2. Check for signs of life. How? Check for breathing; yell, “Hey, are you okay?”; pinch the face. If you know how, check for a pulse. If not, for emergency purposes like this, you can assume the heart isn’t beating if the person isn’t breathing. No sign of life? Start chest compressions.


The person shows signs of life. Next? (No cheating.)

Your answer: ________________________


How to Do a Jaw Trust

If an unconscious person is having trouble breathing, you can try this technique for repositioning their airway without moving their neck (in case they have a spinal fracture you may not know about).

Place your fingers against the back of each side of the person’s jaw, just below the ears. Push the jaw forward so the person has an underbite (being careful not to move the neck). This moves the back of the tongue away from the airway.

You can try this on yourself now, but just know that it’ll be hard to do. It’s easier in someone who’s relaxed and unconscious.

My answer:

3. Do a quick scan for immediate and treatable threats to life, such as wounds that are heavily bleeding. Stop any bleeding by applying direct pressure, and know how to use a tourniquet if needed. If there’s trouble breathing, reposition the airway by performing a jaw thrust. (See the box to the right.)

4. But right now it’s also important not to move the person unless you know for sure the reason for the unconsciousness was not from an injury to the head, neck, or back or unless not moving would likely result in imminent danger (from a quick-moving fire, for example). Any movement before you protect the spine could move a piece of fractured bone and potentially result in paralysis.


Sound daunting? Yes. But a little less so by learning a few steps. Any questions? Disagree?

In the next post, I’ll give you some tips on how to protect the spine.


Photo: Flickr/FloroSoos, shared under CC BY-NC 2.0.