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Breathing After Surgery

After chest or abdominal surgery, breathing and coughing can suddenly become painful tasks. And while the natural urge is to avoid pain by not coughing or breathing deeply, this can cause serious problems. That’s because coughing is your body’s natural reaction to expelling excess mucus. If mucus lingers in a person’s lungs for too long, it can become infected.

Post surgery, a respiratory therapist may recommend some breathing exercises you can do both in the hospital and at home. If breathing and coughing are too painful after your surgery, try folding a pillow and squeezing it over the site of your incision to lessen the pain. Remember to cough after each exercise session to clear the mucus from your lungs.

Tool to increase your lung power

incentive spirometer

Look familiar?

This small hand-held device (technically called an incentive spirometer) has likely been ordered by your surgeon and/or a respiratory therapist to encourage deep breathing after surgery. This tool can be used both while you are in the hospital and continued at home. The instrument measures the volume of air that you can hold in your lungs. As you take a deep breath through the device, you “suck up” a plunger. Indicators on the device let you see how much air you are able to hold.

Easy breathing exercise

Do this exercise three to four times a day, 10 breaths per set. You may do it more often if you can handle the pain.

  • Take in a slow deep breath
  • Hold it for a few seconds
  • Slowly exhale

**Tip: If you are watching a TV show while recovering, do a few repetitions of this exercise during the commercials.

Other options for clearing your lungs

While in the hospital, your respiratory therapist may also prescribe positive expiratory pressure (PEP) therapy. PEP uses a device with a mask or mouthpiece that you breathe through 10 to 15 times per cycle. When breathing out, the device creates positive pressure in your lungs to help open small airways and air sacs deep in the lungs that might otherwise remain closed because of mucus blockage. Remember to cough after any of these exercises to remove any mucus in your lungs.

Another device that may be prescribed is the acapella® device. This device uses a counter-weighted plug and magnet to create vibrations and resistance that help move mucus out of your airways. You should breathe in and out through the device 10 to 15 times, resting as needed.

These devices will most likely be prescribed based on your condition and ability to take deep and effective breaths on your own. The appropriate equipment will be provided and you will be instructed on how to use it and monitor your progress. If you have any questions, concerns or difficulty with your device please contact your therapist, physician or nurse for assistance.

Deep breathing after surgery, especially to the abdomen and chest is extremely important. Surgery and your incision can be painful enough - it is imperative that you do all you can to prevent lung infections that can make recovery even more difficult.

About this Blog

The Penn Heart and Vascular blog provides the latest information on heart disease prevention, nutrition and breakthroughs in cardiovascular care.

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