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Breathing Exercises: Using a Manual Incentive Spirometer


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Breathing can be hard after you've had surgery, when you have a lung disease like COPD, or if you're on bed rest. You may find that you can only take small, shallow breaths. Breathing this way makes it harder to get air into your lungs and can cause fluid and mucus to build up in your lungs. This could cause a serious lung infection like pneumonia.

Using an incentive spirometer can help you practice taking deep breaths, which can help open your airways, prevent fluid or mucus from building up in your lungs, and make it easier for you to breathe.

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An incentive spirometer is a handheld device that exercises your lungs and measures how much air you can breathe in. It tells you and your doctor how well your lungs are working.

A flexible plastic tube is connected to a large and small air column. The large column has a piston or ball that moves up each time you breathe in. This column measures how much air you breathe in. Your effort is marked in units of milliliters. A smaller column measures your effort as "good," "better," or "best."

Test Your Knowledge

What does an incentive spirometer measure?

An incentive spirometer measures how much air you can breathe in.
An incentive spirometer measures how much air you can breathe out.

Using an incentive spirometer is important, because it may help to:

  • Open your airways and make it easier for you to breathe.
  • Prevent the buildup of fluid and mucus in your lungs.
  • Prevent a collapse of one or both of your lungs.
  • Prevent serious lung infections like pneumonia.
  • Improve your breathing after you've had surgery or pneumonia.
  • Manage the symptoms of lung disease such as COPD.
  • Keep your airways open and lungs active if you're on bed rest.

Test Your Knowledge

An incentive spirometer can help prevent a buildup of fluid and mucus in your lungs.

True
False

When you use an incentive spirometer, you'll breathe in air through a tube that is connected to a large air column containing a piston or ball. As you breathe in, the piston or ball inside the column moves up. The height of the piston or ball shows how much air you breathed in.

You may feel lightheaded when you breathe in deeply for this exercise. If you feel dizzy or like you're going to pass out, stop the exercise and rest.

You may only be able to raise the piston or ball a short distance up the column at first. As you use the spirometer, you should be able to breathe in more air over time and get back to the level that is normal for you.

How to use an incentive spirometer

  1. Move the slider on the outside of the large column to the level that you want to reach or that your doctor recommended.
  2. Sit or stand up straight, and hold the spirometer in front of you. Be sure to keep it level.
  3. To start, breathe out normally. Then close your lips tightly around the mouthpiece. Make sure that you don't block the mouthpiece with your tongue.
  4. Take a slow, deep breath. Breathe in as deeply as you can. As you breathe in, the piston or ball inside the large column will move up. Try to move the piston or ball as high up as you can or to the level your doctor recommended. When you can't breathe in anymore, hold your breath for 2 to 5 seconds.
  5. Relax, remove the mouthpiece, and then breathe out normally.

    Repeat steps 1 through 5 as many times as your doctor tells you to. Then go to step 6.

  6. After you've taken the recommended number of breaths, try to cough a few times. This will help loosen any mucus that has built up in your lungs. It will make it easier for you to breathe.

    If you just had surgery on your belly or chest, hold a pillow over your incision when you cough. This will support your belly or chest and reduce your pain.

    Repeat steps 1 through 6 as many times a day as your doctor tells you to.

View a slideshow of how to use an incentive spirometerClick here to see an illustration..

Write it down

Each time you do this exercise, keep track of your progress by writing down how high the piston or ball moves up the large column. This will help you and your doctor know how well your lungs are working.

Test Your Knowledge

When you use an incentive spirometer, the piston or ball inside the large air column moves up. The height of the piston or ball shows how much air you breathed in.

True
False

Talk with your doctor

Now that you've read this information, you're ready to start using your incentive spirometer. If you have questions after you start to use the spirometer, ask your doctor.

ByHealthwise Staff
Primary Medical ReviewerE. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal Medicine
Specialist Medical ReviewerRohit K Katial, MD - Allergy and Immunology
Last RevisedFebruary 22, 2013

eMedicineHealth Medical Reference from Healthwise

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