Incentive Spirometer Use, Benefits, and Risks

Step by Step Instructions for Using an Incentive Spirometer

incentive spirometer
How to use an incentive spirometer and why it can be helpful. Science Photo Library/Getty Images

If your doctor has recommended an incentive spirometer after surgery or for lung disease, how do you use it? What steps should you go through to make sure you are using it correctly? And what do studies tell us about the risks and benefits?


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 how 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 to exercise your lungs to help keep your alveoli—the air sacs where oxygen and carbon dioxide are exchanged—inflated.

When Is An Incentive Spirometer Used?

An incentive spirometer may be useful for:

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 us. With surgery it can be helpful to use your spirometer 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

In 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 chair or in your bed in a comfortable position, such as in a comfortable chair or the side 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 level. For example, start at 1250 milliliters and slowly increase as your lung disease progresses or as time passes after surgery.
  3. Place the mouthpiece into your mouth and tightly seal your lips around it.
  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. 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. Rest for a moment and cough to clear your airway of mucus if needed.
  7. Repeat these steps five to ten times or as often as your doctor or respiratory therapist recommends.
  1. Position 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 Comfort

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

The jury is still out on the routine use of spirometry in people who have had surgery, with mixed results that vary with the type of surgery as well as between studies.

With bariatric surgery for obesity (stomach bypass) does not appear to reduce complications or benefit lung function source here.

Benefits of Spirometry With Lung Disease

Risks and Complications

In general, there are very few risks or possible complications with incentive spirometer, but it's important to stop if you find yourself becoming lightheaded. There are rare reports of pneumothorax, however, that have been associated with very aggressive spirometry in people with emphysema (and lung blebs which could rupture.)

A Word From Verywell

Relative to many other methods used to treat lung diseases and prevent complications from surgery, incentive spirometry is not only relatively easy and quick, but is something you can take charge of yourself. Carefully follow your doctor's instructions and make sure she is aware of any problems you have with the procedure.

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