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Incentive spirometer: A small, inexpensive device that keeps your lungs healthy
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Incentive spirometer: A small, inexpensive device that keeps your lungs healthy

Widely used during the COVID-19 pandemic, the incentive spirometer strengthens the respiratory muscles and improves lung function
An incentive spirometer strengthens the respiratory muscles and improves lung function
Photo by Anantha Subramanyam K/Happiest Health

While recovering from surgery or addressing exacerbated symptoms of chronic lung conditions such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), an inexpensive, small, hand-held plastic device known as an incentive spirometer comes in handy. It helps your lungs return to their normal, healthy state. Besides helping clear out the mucus, the spirometer also improves lung capacity, enhances lung function and aids in oxygenation, say pulmonologists.

Incentive spirometer: What is it and how does it work?

An incentive spirometer is a device that helps one expand their lungs through deep breaths, thereby improving lung capacity, says Dr SP Rai, consultant, pulmonary medicine and sleep medicine, Kokilaben Dhirubhai Ambani Hospital, Mumbai. It consists of a breathing tube, an air chamber and, in some cases, a visual indicator that works to provide some sort of feedback or encouragement to the user. He adds that incentive spirometers usually come with a ball or piston (present in the air chamber) that moves as one inhales, providing a rough measure of lung capacity by indicating the amount of air they’re able to take in.

According to Dr Pavan Yadav, lead consultant, interventional pulmonology and lung transplantation, Aster RV Hospital, Bangalore, an incentive spirometer works on one simple principle: encouraging an individual to take slow, deep breaths. “When one inhales, the piston or ball present inside the chamber jumps up, helping them roughly ascertain their lung function and encouraging them to inhale deeply and slowly. This expands their lungs and strengthens their respiratory muscles,” he explains.

Types of incentive spirometer

According to Dr Rai, incentive spirometers are usually of two types:

♦ Flow-based incentive spirometer: It helps gauge the flow rate and strengthen the upper respiratory muscles.

♦ Volume-based incentive spirometer: It measures the volume of air inhaled into the lungs and focuses more on diaphragmatic breathing.

Incentive spirometer: Who should use it?

Dr Yadav says that an incentive spirometer is particularly useful for those with compromised lung capacity or function, those who have undergone surgery and those on prolonged bed rest, among others.

According to Dr Rai, they are usually recommended for people with lung infections such as pneumonia as well as those who have undergone some sort of upper abdominal surgery such as coronary artery bypass graft surgery (CABG), lung resection surgery, etc.

“We recommend using the device immediately after the surgery, even advising people to familiarize themselves with it during the pre-operative stage itself. It can prevent the accumulation of secretions,” he explains. “Using the incentive spirometer will make the recovery process faster and more efficient.”

Incentive spirometer: A boon during the pandemic

A study published in the European Respiratory Journal in 2022 highlighted the effectiveness of incentive spirometry in managing people with COVID-19 during the initial stages of the illness, preventing it from worsening to the point of acute respiratory distress syndrome.

In addition, as per a review study published in the Asian Journal of Surgery in September 2023, incentive spirometry was found to be an effective modality for improving the quality of postoperative care for people who underwent pulmonary resection.

Precautions to take while using an incentive spirometer

Dr Yadav says while incentive spirometry is generally considered safe, not using it as directed by a healthcare professional can cause problems such as hyperventilation, dizziness or shortness of breath. If one experiences any of these issues, they must consult a doctor immediately. Chest pain while using an incentive spirometer is another warning sign, say experts.

In addition, one must ensure the device is properly maintained, says Dr Rai. “Make sure that all the different parts of the device are properly cleaned with warm water and soap,” he adds.

Further, doctors also advise against multiple people using the same device, as it can potentially transmit infections. “There are people who are highly susceptible to lung rupture or collapse – those with pneumothorax (a condition where the lungs collapse due to trapped air in the chest cavity), for instance. They should be careful while using an incentive spirometer,” cautions Dr Rai.

However, Dr Yadav reassures that if proper precautions are taken, an incentive spirometer will contribute significantly to respiratory care, especially during the recovery or rehabilitation phase. “It will encourage and empower individuals to actively take part in recovery and maintain their lung health,” he shares.

Takeaways

An incentive spirometer is a simple, inexpensive device that’s often recommended by doctors as a rehabilitation tool for those recovering from abdominal surgery or lung infections. Besides clearing out the mucus, it also improves lung capacity and enhances lung function. Widely used during the COVID-19 pandemic, the device comprises a breathing tube, an air chamber and a visual indicator (in some cases) that provides feedback to the user. However, experts say it’s crucial to use the device properly, thoroughly clean it and ensure it’s used by one individual only.

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