Using an Incentive Spirometer

Benefits and Step-by-Step Instructions

An incentive spirometer is a handheld medical device used after surgery or with lung conditions such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), pneumonia, or asthma. The device helps retrain your lungs to take slow, deep breaths. If you've just had surgery or a COPD exacerbation, this may be too painful to do on your own.

When you use an incentive spirometer to reach breathing goals, you're exercising your lungs. This can keep your alveoli—the air sacs where oxygen and carbon dioxide are exchanged—properly inflated.

3 balls Spirometer
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Uses and Benefits

Using this device teaches you how to take slow, deep breaths. It can help you to build your lung capacity after surgery or when you have a progressive condition, such as lung disease. Using this device helps you take active steps in your recovery and healing.

An incentive spirometer may be useful for:

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

One 2019 study found that the use of incentive spirometry after lung surgery can prevent complications such as pneumonia. Other studies have shown that the practice is not as helpful after bariatric or weight loss surgery.

An incentive spirometer is different from the spirometer used to test your lung function. An incentive spirometer is a simpler device meant for at-home use. It doesn't measure breath volume or lung function.

Risks and Complications

There are very few risks or possible complications with regular incentive spirometer use. Still, it's important to stop if you find yourself becoming lightheaded.

Rarely, very aggressive use of spirometry has led to collapsed lungs (pneumothorax) in people with emphysema. You shouldn't use one if:

  • You've recently had eye surgery, because forceful breathing may harm 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 device. They come in a few different models ranging from under $20 to over $100. You may need a prescription if you want to file an insurance claim. If you have had surgery, the hospital will likely give you an incentive spirometer to take home with you.

Your healthcare provider or respiratory therapist will explain how often and for how long to use the spirometer. Most of the time, spirometry can be done every hour or two. Some healthcare providers recommend more or less frequent use.

After surgery, you may need to use your spirometer for as long as you're at risk for lung complications such as pneumonia. That usually means until you are up and moving about as much as you did before surgery.

Step-by-Step Instructions

Using a spirometer can be tricky at first, but following these steps will help:

  1. Sit upright in a comfortable chair or on the edge of your bed.
  2. Hold the device upright with both hands. Slide the indicator to the desired target level. The indicator is usually on the left near the mouthpiece. Your healthcare provider may tell you where to start, but 1250 millimeters (mm) is a good ballpark. You may need to increase or decrease this level.
  3. Place the mouthpiece in your mouth and 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 below the indicator should rise 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. The piston will drop to the bottom of the column. If you start to feel dizzy or lightheaded, take a break.
  6. Exhale normally, then rest. Cough to clear your airway of mucus if needed.
  7. Reset the indicator to the level you reached during your best effort.

Repeat these steps 10 to 12 times every hour you are awake, or as often as your healthcare provider recommends. 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 with warm water and soap. Don't reuse a disposable mouthpiece for more than 24 hours.

Expect some discomfort as you work to strengthen your lungs. 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 find it helpful to hold a pillow tightly against their incision when taking deep breaths.

Be sure to follow the instructions of your healthcare provider or respiratory therapist. Contact your healthcare team with any questions or concerns.

Summary

Incentive spirometry is a breathing treatment you can do after surgery or with a lung condition. It can help you strengthen your lungs and prevent infections like pneumonia.

You may receive a spirometry device when you're discharged from the hospital. A respiratory therapist or another healthcare provider will advise you how often to use the device and where to set the level for your first use.

To use the device, sit comfortably, set the indicator level, and place the mouthpiece in your mouth with your lips tight around it. Breathe in deeply and slowly. Remove the mouthpiece and hold your breath for three seconds or so. Exhale slowly. Each time you use the device, try to better your last effort. It may be uncomfortable at first, but with practice you'll improve.

A Word From Verywell

Compared to other methods used to treat lung disease and prevent complications from surgery, incentive spirometry is easy, quick, and noninvasive. It helps you take charge of part of your healthcare journey. If you have any trouble, talk to your healthcare provider.

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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