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What is an Abduction Pillow?

By Erica Stratton
Updated May 23, 2024
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An abduction pillow is a medical recovery device most commonly used to keep the legs stable after hip replacement surgery, though this sort of pillow can be useful any time a person needs to keep his or her legs still; various surgeries and procedures may require its use for at least a little while to help facilitate the healing process. The pillow is often little more than a foam triangle that is essentially wedged between the legs. It connects to the thighs and sometimes also the calves with soft straps, and is almost always intended for use in bed. Doctors and other healthcare providers often require patients to sleep with this sort of pillow to prevent rolling and turning that can cause damage to newly-healing tissues, and depending on the nature of the injury or operation a person may also need to spend most of the day in the device during the early part of recovery. Some motion and time away from the pillow is usually necessary to avoid bedsores and other problems, though.

Origin of the Name

Those unfamiliar with the term “abduction pillow” may be tempted to think that this item is some sort of prop used for kidnapping. In fact, the name "abduction" comes from the medical term for a certain kind of leg movement. "Hip abduction" is when the thighs are moved apart, angling the femur, which is the main leg bone, out to the side. An abduction pillow keeps a patient's legs at just the right angle so that a new hip joint will not pop out of place, and also keeps the patient from rotating the hip or pelvis too far in other directions until everything has had a chance to heal sufficiently.

Most Common Uses

There are several kinds of hip surgery that will require that a patient remain immobile for some period of time, but one of the most common is hip replacement surgery. During this kind of operation, the worn ball joint or socket of the hip is replaced with a metal one. Since the patient's muscles and the new joint can be easily injured by too great a rotation of the hip, care providers often recommend or sometimes even require that patients use a pillow designed specifically for abduction in order to keep everything properly aligned.

Basic Instructions

Using the pillow is, in most cases, relatively straightforward. A care provider will usually place it between the patient's legs with the narrowest end of the triangle pointing towards the crotch. The pillow itself is typically made of foam or another soft but firm material, and in most cases two sides of the triangle are already hollowed out to form slots for the legs. The patient's legs are then secured to the sides of the foam pillow using hook and loop straps. These straps are usually thick, but their main purpose is not complete immobility — the goal is to keep the pillow from slipping, not to keep the patient from getting out. In most cases they’re very easy to loosen and remove.

Risks and Precautions

An abduction pillow's straps should not be so tight as to slow circulation. Blood loss to the legs and feet can cause a range of potentially very serious complications, particularly for people who are already in a recovery mode. It’s also really important for the patient to have his or her position changed every two hours or so in order to prevent bedsores and other skin problems. He or she may need to have the ankles elevated in order to encourage blood flow, too, particularly if the pillow is being used for long periods of time.

Most patients just out of hip surgery spend most of their days immobilized by the pillow, and successively get strong enough to spend more time independent of it. Slow exercises for the feet, leg, and hip muscles are important so that these muscles do not weaken post-surgery. A week or so out, patients will typically use the pillow only when resting or at night, though a lot of this depends on the specifics of individual healing and a medical care provider’s advice. In general people need to keep their hips immobilized for at least part of the day for anywhere from six to 12 weeks following surgery.

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Discussion Comments

By anon988500 — On Feb 11, 2015

@Malka: The patient is not strapped into place; the pillow is strapped to the patient's leg. It's meant to keep the leg immobile while healing. The whole body does not get "strapped down".

By Malka — On Aug 03, 2011

I've never seen an abduction pillow, but judging by the description they're kind of scary. Anything that straps you in place freaks me out, even when I know it's just a medical tool designed to help me. I guess I've seen too many horror movies where they use those same medical tools to strap people down and maim, torture or kill them!

I wonder if people are naturally afraid of medical strap-down type items and that's why horror movies include them in their themes so much, or if we are scared of medical strap-down things because the horror movies feature them? It's kind of a chicken or the egg thing.

By hanley79 — On Aug 02, 2011

@malmal - Sounds like you had a much, much more pleasant experience with using an abduction pillow than I did. I also had hip replacement surgery, but my doctor insisted on keeping my painkillers to a minimum since I'm sensitive to certain kinds and there was some potential for an overdose of sorts if I had too much. So there I am, in extra pain thanks to the lack of meds, and then they put the abduction pillow on me.

The guy who put the straps on was obviously an intern or something -- he was a young man, and he seemed very rigid and by the book about everything. Everything except, apparently, learning how to adjust an abduction pillow. He made the straps too tight! When I complained about discomfort while he was putting them on, he said my pain would go away after and it was normal after surgery. Then he left.

I wasn't there with anybody, so I had to just sit and endure these stupid straps until the next morning when the doctor came to see me. The pillow needed to stay on for a few more days straight, but he loosened the straps up at least. Ugh.

By malmal — On Aug 02, 2011

@aishia - Yeah, the inventor was probably some doctor or orthopedic surgeon who needed the abduction pillow for one of his own patients. Really practical, specific medical things are usually invented that way.

I can say from experience that being strapped into an abduction pillow feels very stiff and a bit strange, but it's more comfortable than it looks. I had hip replacement surgery, and since I was all numbed up I was really scared that I would accidentally shift and hurt myself without knowing it, so the abduction pillow was very reassuring.

After the first few days, I very carefully flex my ankles and knees and such, and the abduction pillow was used mostly when I slept. It was a comfort knowing I couldn't roll over and hurt myself, especially since I usually sleep on my side so rolling over would probably have been an automatic thing to do.

All in all, the abduction pillow is a great invention that does just what it's supposed to.

By aishia — On Aug 01, 2011

The name "abduction pillow" is what brought me here. I'm relieved that the term isn't literally about abducting anybody, because if somebody made a pillow specifically for that it would just be scary!

It sounds like abduction pillows are exactly what somebody needs after hip replacement surgery. Whoever invented them must be getting a lot of royalties off of the idea for a pillow that holds the hips at precisely the right angle to support them after hip replacement, I'd imagine.

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