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Breathing After Surgery

Techniques to ease pain and prevent infection

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.

After surgery, a respiratory therapist may recommend some breathing exercises you can do 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.

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

Tool to increase your lung power

One tool used in recovery is a hand-held device known as an incentive spirometer.  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.  Take 10 deep breaths into the device, resting between each breath. Track your progress against the air volume goal the respiratory therapist has set for you.

Other options for clearing your lungs

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.

You respiratory therapist can determine which of these techniques is best suited for you based on your condition. He or she will also provide you with the appropriate equipment, instruct you on how to use it and monitor your progress.  If you have any questions, concerns or difficulty with your device please contact your therapist for assistance.

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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