Using an incentive spirometer

Toggle: English / Spanish

Alternate Names


An incentive spirometer is a device used to help you keep your lungs healthy while they are healing. 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 sick lungs. 

By using the incentive spirometer every 1 - 2 hours, or as directed 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 upright.           

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

 A piece in the incentive spirometer will rise as you take a breath in. 

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

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

  • 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 with stay at the bottom.

Hold your breath for a few (3 - 5) seconds, then slowly release your breath and exhale.

Repeat 10 - 15 breaths every 1 - 2 hours or as instructed by your nurse or doctor.

Other Tips

  • You may need to hold a pillow tightly to your belly while breathing in. This will help ease any discomfort.
  • You may not be achieving the number marked for you, but don’t get discouraged. This will improve with practice and as your body heals.
  • If you start to get dizzy or light-headed, slow down and take some normal breaths in between using the incentive spirometer.


James Cancer Hospital & Solove Research Department of Respiratory Therapy. How to Use an Incentive. Columbus: James Cancer Hospital & Solove Research Department of Respiratory Therapy, 2009. Print.

Version Info

  • Last reviewed on 2/26/2012
  • David C. Dugdale, III, MD, Professor of Medicine, Division of General Medicine, Department of Medicine, University of Washington School of Medicine. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M. Health Solutions, Ebix, Inc.

A.D.A.M., Inc. is accredited by URAC, also known as the American Accreditation HealthCare Commission ( URAC's accreditation program is an independent audit to verify that A.D.A.M. follows rigorous standards of quality and accountability. A.D.A.M. is among the first to achieve this important distinction for online health information and services. Learn more about A.D.A.M.'s editorial policy, editorial process and privacy policy. A.D.A.M. is also a founding member of Hi-Ethics and subscribes to the principles of the Health on the Net Foundation (

The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed medical professional should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Call 911 for all medical emergencies. Links to other sites are provided for information only -- they do not constitute endorsements of those other sites. © 1997- 2013 A.D.A.M., Inc. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.