Chest physiotherapy for pneumonia in children

Review question

We reviewed the evidence regarding the effect of any type of chest physiotherapy for children with pneumonia.


Pneumonia is a type of lung infection and the biggest cause of worldwide deaths among children aged up to five years. Chest physiotherapy may contribute to children's recovery because it can help to open airways and assist breathing.

Search date

The evidence is current to 22 February 2018.

Study characteristics

We included six studies involving 559 children with pneumonia aged from 29 days to 12 years. This is an update of a review published in 2013 and includes three new studies.

Studies were conducted in hospitals in Bangladesh, Brazil, China, Egypt, and South Africa.

Pneumonia was described as moderate to severe in three studies, but severity was not described in three studies. All studies included children who received physiotherapy and others who did not. All children also received standard medical treatment for pneumonia.

The studies assessed deaths, length of hospital stay, time taken to attain normal test results (no signs of pneumonia), and adverse events.

Study funding sources

Four studies reported sources of funding (a child health agency, university, government research grants), and two did not report study funding sources.

Key results

One study reported fewer deaths in children who received bubble continuous positive airway pressure (bCPAP). Physiotherapy techniques (bCPAP, assisted autogenic drainage, and conventional chest physiotherapy) were not associated with shorter hospital stays. Two studies reported improvements in blood oxygen levels after chest physiotherapy (CPAP and conventional chest physiotherapy). No clear improvement in respiratory rate was observed after conventional chest physiotherapy. Based on the available evidence, we could not confirm if chest physiotherapy is beneficial or not for children with pneumonia.

Quality of the evidence

We assessed the overall quality of the evidence as low due to inadequate study methods and design, differing results among studies, and few data.

Authors' conclusions: 

We could draw no reliable conclusions concerning the use of chest physiotherapy for children with pneumonia due to the small number of included trials with differing study characteristics and statistical presentation of data. Future studies should consider the following key points: appropriate sample size with adequate power to detect expected differences, standardisation of chest physiotherapy techniques, appropriate outcomes (such as duration of leukocytosis, and airway clearance), and adverse effects.

Read the full abstract...

Pneumonia is a lung infection that causes more deaths in children aged under five years than any other single cause. Chest physiotherapy is widely used as adjuvant treatment for pneumonia. Physiotherapy is thought to help remove inflammatory exudates, tracheobronchial secretions, and airway obstructions, and reduce airway resistance to improve breathing and enhance gas exchange. This is an update of a review published in 2013.


To assess the effectiveness of chest physiotherapy with regard to time until clinical resolution in children (from birth to 18 years) of either gender with any type of pneumonia.

Search strategy: 

We searched the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (CENTRAL; 2018, Issue 1), which includes the Cochrane Acute Respiratory Infections Group Specialised Register, MEDLINE (22 February 2018), Embase (22 February 2018), CINAHL (22 February 2018), LILACS (22 February 2018), Web of Science (22 February 2018), and PEDro (22 February 2018). We also searched clinical trials registers ( and WHO ICTRP) to identify planned, ongoing, and unpublished trials.

Selection criteria: 

We included randomised controlled trials (RCTs) that compared any type of chest physiotherapy with no chest physiotherapy for children with pneumonia.

Data collection and analysis: 

We used standard Cochrane methodological procedures. The primary outcomes of interest were mortality, duration of hospital stay, and time to clinical resolution. We used Review Manager 5 software to analyse data and GRADE to assess the quality of the evidence for each outcome.

Main results: 

We included three new RCTs for this update, for a total of six included RCTs involving 559 children aged from 29 days to 12 years with pneumonia who were treated as inpatients. Pneumonia severity was described as moderate in one trial, severe in two trials, and was not stated in three trials. The studies assessed five different interventions: effects of conventional chest physiotherapy (3 studies, 211 children), positive expiratory pressure (1 study, 72 children), continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) (1 study, 94 children), bubble CPAP (bCPAP) (1 study, 225 children), and assisted autogenic drainage (1 studies, 29 children). The included studies were conducted in Bangladesh, Brazil, China, Egypt, and South Africa. The studies were overall at low risk of bias. Blinding of participants was not possible in most studies, but we considered that the outcomes were unlikely to be influenced by the lack of blinding.

One study of bCPAP reported that three deaths occurred in children in the physiotherapy group (N = 79), and 20 deaths in the control group (N = 146) (risk ratio (RR) 0.28, 95% confidence interval (CI) 0.08 to 0.90; 225 children; low-quality evidence). One study of assisted autogenic drainage (N = 29), and one study of conventional chest physiotherapy (N = 72) reported no deaths occurred. It is uncertain whether chest physiotherapy techniques (bCPAP, assisted autogenic drainage, and conventional chest physiotherapy) reduced hospital stay duration (days) (mean difference (MD) 0.10, 95% CI -0.56 to 0.76; 4 studies; low-quality evidence).

There was variation among clinical parameters used to define clinical resolution. Two small studies found no difference in resolution of fever between children in the physiotherapy (conventional chest physiotherapy and assisted autogenic drainage) and control groups. Of five studies that considered peripheral oxygen saturation levels, only two reported that use of chest physiotherapy (CPAP and conventional chest physiotherapy) showed a greater improvement in peripheral oxygen saturation levels. However, it was unclear whether respiratory rate (breaths/min) improved after conventional chest physiotherapy (MD -2.25, 95% CI -5.17 to 0.68; 2 studies, 122 children; low-quality evidence). Two studies assessed adverse events (number of events), but only one study reported any events (RR 1.28, 95% CI 0.98 to 1.67; 2 studies, 254 children; low-quality evidence).