Incentive Spirometer Use, Benefits, and Risks

Step by Step Instructions for Using an Incentive Spirometer

3 balls Spirometer

An incentive spirometer is a medical device commonly used after surgery or with certain lung conditions such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), pneumonia, or asthma to help keep your lungs healthy. The device helps retrain your lungs to take slow, deep breaths, which, following surgery or a COPD exacerbation, may be too painful to do on your own.

As the incentive spirometer measures how well your lungs fill up with each breath, it also helps you exercise your lungs to keep your alveoli—the air sacs where oxygen and carbon dioxide are exchanged—sufficiently inflated.

When An Incentive Spirometer Is Used

An incentive spirometer may be useful for:

  • Emphysema
  • Chronic bronchitis
  • Bronchiectasis
  • Asthma
  • Following major chest or abdominal surgery (such as lung cancer surgery or cardiac bypass surgery) to decrease the risk of postoperative pneumonia and atelectasis (lung collapse)

Before You Get Started

To use an incentive spirometer, you will need the equipment, which comes in a few different models ranging in price from under $20 to over $100. You may require a doctor’s prescription for insurance reimbursement. If you have had surgery, the hospital will likely provide you with an incentive spirometer that you may take home with you after discharge.

Your doctor or respiratory therapist will direct you in how frequently and for how long you should use the spirometer. Most of the time it's recommended that spirometry be done every one to two hours, but some physicians may recommend more or less frequent usage.

After surgery, it can be helpful to use your spirometer for as long as you are at risk for lung complications such as pneumonia, which usually means until you are up and moving around similar to your pre-surgery activity level.

Step-by-Step Instructions

It may seem difficult at first to use your spirometer, but following these steps will help you quickly catch on to the procedure.

  1. To use the incentive spirometer, sit upright in a comfortable chair or on the edge of your bed.
  2. Hold the incentive spirometer upright, with both hands. Slide the indicator (located in the left-hand column when you are facing the spirometer) to the desired target level. Your doctor or respiratory therapist should tell you where to start, but 1250 millimeters is a good ballpark. (You may need to increase or decrease depending on your needs).
  3. Place the mouthpiece into your mouth and tightly seal your lips around it. Try not to block the mouthpiece with your tongue.
  4. Breathe in slowly and as deeply as possible. The piston that is resting below the indicator should now rise toward the top of the column.
  5. When you've reached your full inhale capacity, remove the mouthpiece and hold your breath for at least 3 seconds or as long as possible to allow the piston to fall back to the bottom of the column. If you start to feel dizzy or lightheaded, take a break.
  6. Exhale normally, then rest for a moment and cough to clear your airway of mucus if needed.
  7. Repeat these steps 10 to 12 times every hour you're awake, or as often as your doctor or respiratory therapist recommends.
  8. Reposition the indicator at the level you obtained during your best effort.

If you do not reach your goal, do not get discouraged. You will improve with practice and as you heal. After each set of deep breaths, cough to help clear your airways of mucus. Rest for a few seconds and repeat.

Tips on Cleaning and Comfort

After each use, clean the mouthpiece of your spirometer with warm water and soap. Don't reuse a disposable mouthpiece for more than 24 hours.

If you are using an incentive spirometer after surgery with a chest or abdominal incision, taking a deep breath is important but may be painful. Some people have found it helpful to hold a pillow tightly against their incision area when taking deep breaths.

Some discomfort is to be expected as you work to strengthen your lungs. Be sure to always follow the instructions of your doctor or respiratory therapist, and if you have any questions or concerns do not hesitate to contact his or her office.

Benefits of Spirometry

Using an incentive spirometer teaches you how to take slow, deep breaths, and can be helpful to maximize lung capacity after surgery or when you have a progressive condition, such as lung disease. By using this device, you're taking an active step in your recovery and healing.

One study has found that the use of incentive spirometry in people who have recently had lung surgery can prevent post-surgery complications such as pneumonia, but other studies have shown that the practice is not as helpful after bariatric surgery, however.

Risks and Complications

In general, there are very few risks or possible complications with regular incentive spirometer usage, but it's important to stop if you find yourself becoming lightheaded. There are rare reports of collapsed lung (pneumothorax) that have been associated with very aggressive spirometry in people with emphysema. If you have any of the following conditions, you shouldn't use an incentive spirometer:

  • If you've recently had eye surgery, as the pressure of breathing forcefully may affect your eyes
  • If you have a collapsed lung
  • If you have an aneurysm (ballooning blood vessel) in the chest, abdomen, or brain

A Word From Verywell

Relative to many other methods used to treat lung disease and prevent complications from surgery, incentive spirometry is not only relatively easy and quick but is a noninvasive technique that you can take charge of yourself. Carefully follow your doctor's instructions and make sure they are aware of any problems you may or might have with the procedure.

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