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Using an incentive spirometer

An incentive spirometer is a device used to help you keep your lungs healthy after surgery or when you have a lung illness, such as pneumonia. The incentive spirometer teaches you how to take slow deep breaths.

After surgery, it may be too painful to take deep breaths. You may also feel too weak to take deep breaths. When you do not breathe deeply enough, this can lead to lung illness.

By using the incentive spirometer every 1 to 2 hours, or as instructed by your nurse or doctor, you can take an active role in your recovery and keep your lungs healthy.

How to Use an Incentive Spirometer

Sit up and hold the incentive spirometer.

  • Place the mouthpiece of the incentive spirometer in your mouth. Make sure you make a good seal over the mouthpiece with your lips.
  • Breathe out (exhale) normally.
  • Breathe in (inhale) SLOWLY.

A piece in the incentive spirometer will rise as you breathe in.

  • Try to get this piece to rise as high as you can.
  • Usually, there is a marker placed by your doctor that tells you how big of a breath you should take.

Another, smaller piece in the incentive spirometer looks like a ball or disc.

  • Your goal should be to make sure this ball stays in the middle of the chamber while you breathe in.
  • If you breathe in too fast, the ball will shoot to the top.
  • If you breathe in too slowly, the ball will stay at the bottom.

Hold your breath for a 3 to 5 seconds. Then slowly exhale.

Take 10 to 15 breaths with your spirometer every 1 to 2 hours, or as often as instructed by your nurse or doctor.

Other Tips

  • If you have a surgical cut (incision) in your chest or abdomen, you may need to hold a pillow tightly to your belly while breathing in. This will help ease discomfort.
  • If you do not make the number marked for you, do not get discouraged. This will improve with practice and as your body heals.
  • If you start to feel dizzy or light-headed, remove the mouthpiece from your mouth and take some normal breaths. Then continue using the incentive spirometer.


Kulaylat MN, Dayton MT. Surgical complications. In: Townsend CM, Beauchamp RD, Evers BM, Mattox KL, eds.Sabiston Textbook of Surgery

Restrepo RD, Wettstein R, Wittnebel L, Tracy M. Incentive spirometry: 2011. Respir Care

Update Date 2/8/2014

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