Objective: To systematically review the evidence examining the use of incentive spirometry (IS) for the prevention of postoperative pulmonary complications (PPCs).
Methods: We searched MEDLINE, CINAHL, HealthSTAR, and Current Contents databases from their inception until June 2000. Key terms included "incentive spirometry," "breathing exercises," "chest physical therapy," and "pulmonary complications." Articles were limited to human studies in English. A secondary search of the reference lists of all identified articles also was conducted. A critical appraisal form was developed to extract and assess information. Each study was reviewed independently by one of three pairs of group members. The pair then met to reach consensus before presenting the report to the entire review group for final agreement.
Results: The search yielded 85 articles. Studies dealing with the use of IS for preventing PPCs (n = 46) were accepted for systematic review. In 35 of these studies, we were unable to accept the stated conclusions due to flaws in methodology. Critical appraisal of the 11 remaining studies indicated 10 studies in which there was no positive short-term effect or treatment effect of IS following cardiac or abdominal surgery. The only supportive study reported that IS, deep breathing, and intermittent positive-pressure breathing were equally more effective than no treatment in preventing PPCs following abdominal surgery.
Conclusions: Presently, the evidence does not support the use of IS for decreasing the incidence of PPCs following cardiac or upper abdominal surgery.