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A cystic fibrosis vest is a therapeutic tool. When worn, it provides compressions similar to manual chest percussions. Wearing the vest can help loosen sticky secretions so that a person can more easily cough them out and breathe easier.

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For people with cystic fibrosis, mucus that lines the lungs, airways, and other body parts becomes extra thick and sticky. This mucus can be difficult to clear or cough out, so chest physiotherapy offers a physical aid.

Different chest physiotherapy or airway clearance techniques can help people with cystic fibrosis cough sticky phlegm out of tight, inflamed airways. One way to get this therapy is by using a cystic fibrosis vest, also known as a high frequency chest wall oscillation vest (HFCWO).

This article reviews who can benefit from the kind of airway clearance these vests offer, how much they cost, and where or how to get one.

Learn more about cystic fibrosis.

A cystic fibrosis vest is a wearable, portable medical device. It uses pulsating discs positioned throughout an inflatable vest to deliver bursts of force to the chest wall. These bursts of force help mobilize secretions and clear airways blocked with sticky mucus.

Traditional chest physiotherapy techniques can involve having someone clap your chest in different areas as you perform cough and deep breathing exercises. By hand, this therapy can take between 20 and 40 minutes, with repetitions at least twice daily.

Wearable devices like cystic fibrosis vests can offer increased mobility and independence to help people with certain breathing conditions stay on top of their therapies.

A cystic fibrosis vest comprises two main parts — a generator that creates air pulses and an inflatable vest. The generator sends bursts of air through hoses connected to the vest, creating a cycle of rapid inflation and deflation that occurs about 20 times per second during treatment.

The pressure and vibration created with this pulsating inflation help loosen mucus and make it easier to cough it out. The process is similar to manual chest clapping, but with the cystic fibrosis vest, you don’t need another person’s help to use it.

You can apply the vest yourself, and therapy takes about 5 minutes. After the active part of the therapy provided by the vest, you’ll need to do some deep breathing and coughing to clear the loosened mucus. In total, each session with your cystic fibrosis vest should take about 20 minutes.

Tips for using a cystic fibrosis vest

Chest physiotherapy isn’t the most comfortable treatment, but there are tips you can try to make your therapy go as smoothly as possible.

  • Wear your vest over just a thin layer of clothing.
  • Make sure your vest has the correct adjustment for the best fit to cover as much of your upper chest as possible.
  • The bottom of the vest should end just above your hip bones.
  • The straps of the vest shouldn’t be too tight. When you take a deep breath, you should be able to fit your hand between the vest and your chest.
  • Grab the bottom of the vest and pull down as it inflates.
  • The vest works most effectively when using it correctly. Follow these tips for the best results:
    • Try to do your treatments before meals or at least 1 hour after meals.
    • Use your vest twice a day as a maintenance therapy, but you may increase frequency to four times a day if you get sick.
    • Nebulizer treatments with saline or other medications can help moisten and loosen secretions even more when used with vest therapy.
    • Add an extra t-shirt under your vest if you experience itching.
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The chest physiotherapy provided with these vests can benefit people with more conditions than just cystic fibrosis. For people with cystic fibrosis, clearing airways with manual chest clapping or other types of chest physiotherapy is usually a central part of your treatment strategy.

Beyond cystic fibrosis, people with the following conditions may also get chest clapping, a HFCWO vest, and other forms of physiotherapy:

There are several types and brands of cystic fibrosis vests. Your specific cost may depend on the:

  • type
  • style
  • brand
  • additional features

Some brand names of cystic fibrosis vests include:

Pricing can range from around $24,856 to $37,290 for one of these vests, according to a 2019 study from the United Kingdom. But that study also found that investment in a cystic fibrosis vest may lead to cost savings down the road in terms of less frequent flare-ups, hospitalizations, and other cystic fibrosis complications.

Your health insurance may cover equipment for cystic fibrosis therapies, including a vest. People with cystic fibrosis also often qualify for Social Security Disability and Medicare or Medicaid coverage before turning 65 years old. If you do qualify for one of these programs, Medicare Part B usually pays for chest oscillators.

If a cystic fibrosis vest is appropriate for you, your healthcare professional or therapist will recommend one to you. Your doctor will have to write you a prescription for a chest physiotherapy vest so that Medicare can cover it or another health insurance plan can cover it.

There are likely many suppliers around you that supply cystic fibrosis vests, but it may be best to check with your health insurance plan or healthcare professional to make sure you get the right product and that your plan covers it.

A cystic fibrosis vest can help loosen secretions in your airways and make them easier to cough out. Chest physiotherapy is one of the main treatment strategies for cystic fibrosis. A 2020 study showed that any form of airway clearance therapy could help improve air movement through your lungs.

Some studies have debated whether a vest is more effective than other methods of airway clearance therapies and have yet to find real consensus. The use of a vest for chest physiotherapy may make it easier for people with cystic fibrosis to follow their prescribed treatment schedules.

One key advantage that sets the vest apart from other therapy techniques is that a single person can use the vest, increasing mobility and independence.

Chest physiotherapy isn’t all that comfortable. Especially for young children, percussion and vibration therapies can be difficult to tolerate. A vest may not be right for people with a low tolerance to these therapies or for people who have other complex medical conditions like:

Will my insurance plan cover a cystic fibrosis vest?

Whether or not your medical insurance covers a cystic fibrosis vest will vary by plan. But many plans will cover these devices with a prescription from your doctor. Medicare can also cover them.

Is wearing a cystic fibrosis vest painful?

Wearing a chest physiotherapy vest shouldn’t be painful, but it might not be comfortable, either. The strong percussion used to loosen mucus can be difficult to tolerate, but the way you feel after clearing your airways may make up for it.

Do I need a prescription for a cystic fibrosis vest?

You can buy all kinds of medical devices online, but if you receive a cystic fibrosis diagnosis, talk with your healthcare professional about the best medications and therapies for you specifically. Plus, you’ll need a prescription if you want to try and get your insurance plan to cover the cost of your medical device.

A cystic fibrosis vest can help loosen sticky mucus that builds up in your airways. A person can perform taps and vibrations that free up these secretions so you can cough them out, but the inflatable vest version can give you more independence and mobility and make it easier to keep up with treatments.