An incentive spirometer is a handheld device that can help lung recovery following surgery or a lung condition. Using the device can keep lungs active, free of fluid, and help improve breathing

People with a variety of conditions, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), or who have undergone certain procedures, such as lung surgery, may need to use an incentive spirometer. A doctor may suggest people use them while recovering in the hospital, and may provide people with an incentive spirometer that they can use at home.

In this article, we will discuss the uses of incentive spirometers, what conditions they help, and how to use one at home.

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An incentive spirometer is a handheld device that promotes lung expansion. The device keeps the lungs clear and helps patients breathe more deeply and fully. Not only do incentive spirometers allow the lungs to remain active during recovery, but they can also help reduce the risk of infections.

Incentive spirometers can be either flow-oriented or volume-oriented.

Flow-oriented models have a chamber with three interconnected columns. The columns contain plastic floats. The patient inhales through a tube and attempts to raise the plastic floats.

Volume-oriented models instead have a chamber with volume measurements. When the patient inhales, a piston inside the chamber rises to indicate the volume of air that the patient can displace.

Research suggests that volume-oriented incentive spirometers are preferable as they provide more uniform ventilation of the lungs and require less use of accessory muscles. This means there is a lower workload on the patient.

Incentive spirometers are regularly used to prevent lung complications, such as the lungs collapsing, after different types of lung surgeries or following treatment for lung conditions.

Incentive spirometers ensure the lungs remain active. They encourage deep breathing, lung expansion, and mucus clearance, which allows people to retrain their lungs to take slower and fuller breaths and optimize ventilation.

An incentive spirometer is commonly given to those who have undergone surgery. A 2019 study suggests that the use of incentive spirometers following surgery may reduce the risk of complications such as pneumonia.

A person may also need to use an incentive spirometer if they have a certain condition that may make breathing difficult. Some of these conditions may include:

  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD): This refers to a group of conditions that cause long-term breathing difficulties. Training the lungs with incentive spirometry can help reduce exacerbations of the condition.
  • Sickle cell disease: This is a group of red blood cell disorders. Treatment with incentive spirometry may help people that experience acute pain associated with sickle cell disease.
  • COVID-19: A 2021 paper suggests that incentive spirometers may be beneficial for patients with mild to moderate COVID-19.
  • Cystic fibrosis: This is a hereditary condition that can affect breathing. The body produces excessive mucus that is thick and sticky that can clog the lungs. Incentive spirometers may help improve airway clearance in people with cystic fibrosis.

Medical professionals such as respiratory therapists, nurses, or doctors will normally explain to a person how to effectively use an incentive spirometer.

A person should breathe through their mouth while using the incentive spirometer. A person should observe the following recommended steps:

  1. Sit upright in a chair or the edge of a bed and hold the spirometer at eye level.
  2. Cover the mouthpiece tightly with the lips to ensure there are no leaks.
  3. Exhale slowly and completely through the mouth.
  4. Next, breathe in through the mouth slowly and as deeply as possible. As this occurs, the piston in the spirometer will begin to slowly rise.
  5. The indicator on the spirometer should also begin to move upwards. Typically, the incentive spirometer will have markings by the indicator, such as arrows, to show a person’s goal measurement and where they should aim to keep the indicator.
  6. Attempt to get the piston as high as possible, while keeping the indicator in the target area. If the indicator does not stay in this position, then a person is likely breathing too fast or too slow.
  7. When the piston is as high as possible, hold the breath for 10 seconds, or as long as possible. As this happens, the piston will slowly begin to fall.
  8. When the piston reaches the bottom, breathe slowly through the mouth. Then rest for a few seconds.
  9. Repeat this exercise 10 times, or as many times as a medical professional suggests.
  10. Afterwards, attempt to cough to loosen and bring up any mucus in the lungs.

When a person uses an incentive spirometer, both an indicator and a piston rise on the device.

The indicator measures how steadily a person is inhaling. If they breathe in too fast or too slow, they will not expand the lungs fully. The piston indicates the maximal volume, or how deep, a person’s breath is. A higher value suggests better functioning of the lungs.

Some models may feature a moveable marker on the side of the device. This can help a person visually establish a marker for how high they should attempt to get the piston.

The goals and range for incentive spirometry values vary depending on a number of factors. These include:

  • age
  • sex
  • height
  • any pre-existing conditions

A medical professional will take these factors into consideration when creating goals with a person.

The length of time a person will need to use an incentive spirometer for will depend on the person’s condition. A medical professional will typically tell a person how long and often they should use the device.

For example, in some cases, a doctor may recommend that a person repeats the incentive spirometry exercise 10 times as a single set and repeats this exercise once an hour while they are awake.

The evidence for the efficacy of incentive spirometry use for certain conditions is sparse. A 2019 study notes that current data regarding incentive spirometer produces inconsistent conclusions. Additionally, a 2016 study adds that there is currently inconsistent evidence regarding whether people comply with incentive spirometer use.

Benefits of incentive spirometer use may include:

  • improved lung function
  • reduced risk of pulmonary complications such as pneumonia, atelectasis, and lung infections
  • improvement in oxygen saturation
  • its cost-effectiveness as a treatment

Risks of incentive spirometer use may include:

  • improper use if not trained correctly
  • hyperventilation
  • pain
  • fatigue

If a person experiences any of the issues listed above when using an incentive spirometer then they should discuss this with their doctor.

An incentive spirometer is a device that can help with deeper and fuller breathing. A person may use it following lung surgery or treatment for a lung condition, as it may help with their recovery and reduce complications.

A doctor may suggest a person uses a spirometer at home after leaving the hospital. They should show a person how to safely clean and use the device, how often they should use it, and what targets they should aim for. While most research on the benefits of incentive spirometers is inconclusive, some evidence suggests they are beneficial.