Incentive spirometry following thoracic surgery: what should we be doing?

Physiotherapy. 2009 Jun;95(2):76-82. doi: 10.1016/ Epub 2009 Mar 3.


Background: Thoracic surgery may cause reduced respiratory function and pulmonary complications, with associated increased risk of mortality. Postoperative physiotherapy aims to reverse atelectasis and secretion retention, and may include incentive spirometry.

Objectives: To review the evidence for incentive spirometry, examining the physiological basis, equipment and its use following thoracic surgery.

Data sources: MEDLINE was searched from 1950 to January 2008, EMBASE was searched from 1980 to January 2008, and CINAHL was searched from 1982 to January 2008, all using the OVID interface. The search term was: '[incentive]'. The Cochrane Library was searched using the terms 'incentive spirometry' and 'postoperative physiotherapy'. The Chartered Society of Physiotherapy Resource Centre was also searched, and a hand search was performed to follow-up references from the retrieved studies.

Review method: Non-scientific papers were excluded, as were papers that did not relate to thoracic surgery or the postoperative treatment of patients with incentive spirometry.

Results: Initially, 106 studies were found in MEDLINE, 99 in EMBASE and 42 in CINAHL. Eight references were found in the Cochrane Library and one paper in the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy Resource Centre. Four studies and one systematic review investigating the effects of postoperative physiotherapy and incentive spirometry in thoracic surgery patients were selected and reviewed.

Conclusion: Physiological evidence suggests that incentive spirometry may be appropriate for lung re-expansion following major thoracic surgery. Based on sparse literature, postoperative physiotherapy regimes with, or without, the use of incentive spirometry appear to be effective following thoracic surgery compared with no physiotherapy input.

Publication types

  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Humans
  • Postoperative Care*
  • Postoperative Complications / prevention & control
  • Pulmonary Atelectasis / prevention & control
  • Spirometry* / instrumentation
  • Thoracic Surgical Procedures*
  • Work of Breathing