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Chest Physiotherapy

By Bartolome R. Celli, MD, Tufts University;St. Elizabeth's Medical Center

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Chest physiotherapy consists of external mechanical maneuvers, such as chest percussion, postural drainage, and vibration, to augment mobilization and clearance of airway secretions. It is indicated for patients in whom cough is insufficient to clear thick, tenacious, or loculated secretions. Examples include patients with cystic fibrosis, bronchiectasis, lung abscess, neuromuscular disorders, and pneumonias in dependent lung regions.


Contraindications all are relative and include the following:

  • Discomfort due to physical positions or manipulations

  • Anticoagulation

  • Rib or vertebral fractures or osteoporosis

  • Recent hemoptysis


Chest physiotherapy may be administered by a respiratory therapist, although the techniques can often be taught to family members of patients.

The most common procedure used is postural drainage and chest percussion, in which the patient is rotated to facilitate drainage of secretions from a specific lobe or segment while being clapped with cupped hands to loosen and mobilize retained secretions that can then be expectorated or drained. The procedure is somewhat uncomfortable and tiring for the patient. Alternatives to chest percussion by hand include use of mechanical vibrators and inflatable vests.

Other methods that help clear airways include using controlled patterns of breathing, positive expiratory pressure devices to maintain airway patency, and ultra-low-frequency airway oscillation devices to mobilize sputum. The methods of airway clearance are comparable, and methods should be selected based on individual patient needs and preferences.


Complications are unusual but include position-related hypoxia and aspiration of freed secretions in other lung regions.

* This is the Professional Version. *