What Is an Incentive Spirometer?

Medically Reviewed by Zilpah Sheikh, MD on April 07, 2024
6 min read

An incentive spirometer is a device you inhale through to exercise your lungs and get air into every nook and cranny. It measures how much air you can take into your lungs.

The name sounds complicated. But this is a simple, handheld gadget that helps keep your lungs clear when you’re off your feet for a while. Maybe you’ve had surgery on your chest or belly, or you've fractured your ribs and find it painful to take deep breaths. Or you have pneumonia or a lung condition such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or cystic fibrosis. The breaths you take may not be as deep as usual. That means the air in your lungs may not move much and may not clear out any infections.

Your doctor might also call this device a manual incentive spirometer.

An incentive spirometer can measure the volume of air you inhale into your lungs in milliliters (mL) or cubic centimeters (cc), as well as the flow rate of your respiration. Higher numbers mean your lungs are inhaling greater amounts of air.

The ranges vary among different devices but typically are in increments from 0 to 4,000 mL. Your doctor may have a goal of 500 mL for you after surgery and raise your goal as your lungs improve.

Incentive spirometer normal range

A normal range on the incentive spirometer depends on your age, height, and sex. For example, for a 40-year-old woman who is 5 feet 4 inches tall, the incentive spirometer goal by age would be 2,300 mL. For a 60-year-old man who is 6 feet tall, the normal incentive spirometer range by age would be 2,700 mL.

An incentive spirometer is made of plastic and is about the size of a small notebook. It has a mouthpiece that looks like a vacuum tube. When you inhale with it, the suction will move a disk or a piston up inside a clear cylinder marked with a range of numbers. The deeper you breathe, the higher the piston rises. The incentive spirometer also may have a gauge to tell if you’re inhaling at the right pace.

Once you breathe into the incentive spirometer, you will need to hold your breath for about 5-10 seconds. Using an incentive spirometer encourages you to take deep breaths and helps your lungs expand.

You may need a couple of tries to get the hang of it. After that, an incentive spirometer is easy to use.

Sit straight on a chair or the edge of your bed. If you’ve had surgery on your chest or belly, you may be sore there. Hold a pillow there for support so that it doesn't hurt.

Breathe out completely to clear all the air from your lungs.

Close your lips firmly around the mouthpiece. You’ll have to breathe in only through your mouth. Plug your nose if you need to. Your health care team may provide a nose clip for you.

Breathe in slowly, and make the piston rise as high as you can while you keep the indicator between two arrows to know you are inhaling at the right pace. Then hold your breath for up to 10 seconds. Note where the piston stopped. While you’re holding your breath, it will gradually sink.

Loosen your lips from the mouthpiece when the piston hits the bottom of the cylinder. Breathe out slowly and rest for a bit.

Do this 10 times, or as many times as your doctor recommends. Aim to get the piston higher each time.

When you finish, cough to clear any mucus from your lungs. If you’re sore from surgery, hold the pillow against you while you cough.

Repeat the exercise every hour you’re awake, or as often as your doctor says.

You can use a special spirometer if you have an opening in your windpipe because of a tracheotomy. It has a valve instead of a mouthpiece. You hook it up to the tracheostomy tube connected to your throat.

When you empty out and refill the air in your lungs, you get rid of fluid and germs that can lead to an infection. Exercising your lungs helps put more oxygen into your body, helping you to heal and avoid lung infections.

Experts debate the advantages of incentive spirometry. Studies show that deep breathing exercises may work just as well. Your doctor will suggest what might work best for you.

Preventing lung infections with an incentive spirometer

The device helps prevent lung infections by inflating your lungs and clearing mucus from them. Because surgery can lower your oxygen levels, breathing deeply into an incentive spirometer can also help raise your oxygen intake to normal levels.

Preparing for surgery with an incentive spirometer

If you’re having surgery, your doctor may want you to start using your spirometer at home before you head to the hospital. If you strengthen your lungs before your surgery, you’re less likely to pick up an infection afterward.

Studies show that using an incentive spirometer before surgery reduces the risk of postsurgical complications such as atelectasis -- a collapsed lung. An added benefit is that your hospital stay may be shorter. Your doctor will tell you how often you should use the incentive spirometer before your surgery, but it may be as much as 30 times a day.

Boosting lung function with an incentive spirometer

An incentive spirometer encourages you to inhale fully and deeply into your lungs and expand them. Inhaling deeply helps keep fluids and mucus from developing in your lungs, which can otherwise trigger pneumonia. After surgery, the device can help remove anesthesia from your lungs.

Your doctor may give you an incentive spirometer before or after your surgery or during an office visit. You can also buy one from a medical supply store or a retailer such as Amazon or Walmart.

Incentive spirometer price

Incentive spirometers are moderately priced. You can find a simple plastic device online ranging from as little as $5 to about $20. Electronic versions will cost considerably more, ranging from around $70 to several hundred dollars.

An incentive spirometer is a type of exercise device for your lungs, helping them expand and get stronger. Your doctor may recommend an incentive spirometer before or after surgery, or if you have a broken rib, pneumonia, or chronic conditions such as asthma, COPD, cystic fibrosis, and sickle cell disease. Your health care team will show you how to use the device properly and how often.

What is an incentive spirometer used for?

An incentive spirometer helps expand and strengthen your lungs when it hurts or is hard to take deep breaths.

How often should you use an incentive spirometer?

Use your incentive spirometer as often as your health care provider tells you to. Before surgery, that may be up to 30 times a day. Afterward, it may be 10 times an hour or more while you're awake.

What is a good score on an incentive spirometer?

A normal score on an incentive spirometer depends on your sex, age, and how tall you are. Your doctor will tell you what your target goals should be.

How does a spirometer work?

The numbers on the main cylinder measure the amount of air you breathe in and how long you can hold a breath. Deeper breaths make it go higher. Another gauge on the device measures whether you're breathing at the right rate.