Pulmonary complications are the leading cause of morbidity and mortality following major abdominal surgery. Chest physiotherapy aims to decrease the likelihood of these complications and hasten recovery. Exercises aimed at maximising inspiratory effort are the most beneficial for the patients. The incentive spirometer is a handheld device that patients use to achieve effective inspiration. In a nonrandomised pilot study of 263 patients we have found that the addition of the incentive spirometer, as part of an intensive post-operative physiotherapy programme, decreased the occurrence of pulmonary complications (6 vs 17%, p = 0.01) and length of stay on the surgical high dependency unit (3.1 vs 4 days p = 0.03). The two groups were comparable when age, sex, smoking history, the need for emergency surgery and post-operative analgesia were compared.