What is chest physiotherapy?

Chest physiotherapy is a group of physical techniques that improve lung function and help you breathe better. Chest physiotherapy expands the lungs, strengthens breathing muscles, and loosens and improves drainage of thick lung secretions. Chest physiotherapy helps treat such diseases as cystic fibrosis and COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease). It also keeps the lungs clear to prevent pneumonia after surgery and during periods of immobility.  

Chest physiotherapy is only one method used to treat respiratory diseases.  Consider getting a second opinion about all of your treatment choices before having chest physiotherapy.

Types of chest physiotherapy

Healthcare providers often use different types of chest physiotherapy together including:

  • Chest percussion to help loosen lung secretions
  • Controlled coughing techniques to help break up lung secretions so your caregiver can suction them out or you can expectorate them
  • Deep breathing exercises to help expand the lungs and draw more air into all areas of the lungs
  • Incentive spirometry to help improve lung function by inhaling strongly using a special device. You may use it after surgery to re-expand your lungs and prevent pneumonia.
  • Positioning and turning from side to side to help improve lung expansion and drainage of secretions. This is important for patients who are bedridden or hospitalized.
  • Postural drainage to help drain lung secretions
  • Vibration to help break up lung secretions

Other procedures that may be performed

Doctors generally recommend one or more other treatments to manage respiratory disease and breathing problems. Treatments vary depending on the specific disease, the severity of the disease, your medical history, your age, and other factors. Treatments and procedures may include:

  • Expectorant medications to help loosen lung secretions and make them easier to cough up
  • Nebulizer treatments to help moisten secretions and open the airways
  • Suctioning to remove secretions that you can’t cough out

Why is chest physiotherapy performed? 

Your doctor may recommend chest physiotherapy to help loosen and cough up thick or excessive lung secretions from such conditions as:  

  • Atelectasis, in which some or all of your lung tissue collapses
  • Bronchiectasis, in which the large airways in your lungs are damaged and widened
  • COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), which includes emphysema and chronic bronchitis
  • Cystic fibrosis, which is a genetic disorder that causes thick, sticky mucus build-up in the lungs and other organs
  • Immobility, in which you have a low activity level due to being bedridden or in a wheelchair. Chest physiotherapy can help prevent pneumonia and other breathing problems due to long-term immobility.
  • Lung infections, which include pneumonia, acute bronchitis, and lung abscess
  • Neuromuscular diseases, which include cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis, and Guillain-Barré syndrome
  • Surgery, which includes major surgery and other procedures that make it difficult to take a deep breath. Some types of chest physiotherapy can help prevent pneumonia and other breathing problems after surgery.

Who performs chest physiotherapy?

A respiratory therapist or nurse performs chest physiotherapy. Respiratory therapists are healthcare professionals who assess, treat and care for patients with breathing disorders. Depending on your condition, the respiratory therapist or nurse may also teach you and your family to perform the techniques at home.

The following specialists often prescribe chest physiotherapy:

  • Hospitalists specialize in caring for hospitalized patients. Hospitalists are usually doctors , but can also be a physician assistant (PA) or nurse practitioner (NP). 
  • Primary care providers including internists, family practitioners (family medicine doctors), pediatricians, geriatricians, physician assistants (PAs), and nurse practitioners (NPs). Primary care providers offer comprehensive healthcare services and treat a wide range of illnesses and conditions.
  • Pulmonologists are internists or pediatricians with specialized training in treating diseases and conditions of the chest, such as pneumonia, asthma, tuberculosis, emphysema, or complicated chest infections.