Using an Incentive Spirometer

Benefits and Step-by-Step Instructions

An incentive spirometer is a handheld 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.

In using an incentive spirometer to reach set breath goals, you simultaneously exercise your lungs, which can keep your alveoli—the air sacs where oxygen and carbon dioxide are exchanged—sufficiently inflated.

3 balls Spirometer

Uses and Benefits

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.

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)

One study published in 2019 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.

An incentive spirometer is typically used for surgery recovery and differs from the spirometer used for pulmonary function testing. An incentive spirometer is a much simpler device meant for at-home use and it doesn't measure breath volume or lung function.

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 any of the following apply, you shouldn't use an incentive spirometer:

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

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 healthcare provider’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 healthcare provider or respiratory therapist will direct you as to 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 healthcare providers 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:

  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 on the left when you are facing the spirometer) to the desired target level. Your healthcare provider or respiratory therapist should tell you where to start, but 1250 millimeters (mm) is a good ballpark. (You may need to increase or decrease this 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 up inside the column.
  5. When you've reached your full inhale capacity, remove the mouthpiece and hold your breath for at least three 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. Reposition the indicator at the level you obtained during your best effort.

Repeat these steps 10 to 12 times every hour you are awake, or as often as your healthcare provider or respiratory therapist recommends. Aim to meet or beat the level you reached during your previous use.

If you do not reach your goal, do not get discouraged. You will improve with practice and as you heal.

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.

Some discomfort is to be expected as you work to strengthen your lungs. Be sure to always follow the instructions of your healthcare provider or respiratory therapist. 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.

Contact your healthcare team with any questions or concerns.

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 healthcare provider's instructions and make sure they are aware of any problems you may or might have with the procedure.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is an incentive spirometer?

    An incentive spirometer is a handheld device used to help your lungs recover after surgery or a lung illness. The device prompts you to inhale at a slow, steady pace to build lung strength and capacity. An incentive spirometer differs from a diagnostic spirometer used for pulmonary function tests.

  • Who needs an incentive spirometer?

    An incentive spirometer is used by people who are at risk of or have complications from certain lung diseases or surgeries. This includes people:

  • What are the parts of an incentive spirometer?

    An incentive spirometer is made up of a breathing tube with a mouthpiece, a smaller chamber with a flow indicator, and a larger chamber (premarked in millimeters) with a free-moving piston. The body of the device is constructed of clear plastic.

  • How do you use an incentive spirometer?

    An incentive spirometer is typically used every one to two hours with 10 to 15 breaths for each session. To use an incentive spirometer:

    1. Sit upright.
    2. Exhale fully.
    3. Put the mouthpiece in your mouth, creating a tight seal with your lips.
    4. Inhale slowly so that the flow indicator remains in the middle of the smaller chamber and the piston rises to the level preset by your healthcare provider in the main chamber.
    5. When you have inhaled to your full capacity, remove the mouthpiece.
    6. Hold your breath for three to five seconds.
    7. Exhale normally.
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5 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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