What is an Enteral Feeding Tube?

Caitlin Kenney
Caitlin Kenney

An enteral feeding tube is a tube inserted into a patient’s digestive tract to carry nutrition to the body. This is used on patients who are unable to feed themselves normally due to a disease such as mouth or throat cancer, pneumonia, undernourishment, trauma, or any other condition that prohibits the use of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. The tube is placed in the body so that food enters the stomach or small intestine directly, avoiding impaired digestive structures. Enteral nutrition may be administered from home or in a hospital on a short- or long-term basis. The method and location of insertion will vary depending on the patient’s condition.

Doctors prefer that the patient meet nutritional by normal eating. If all attempts to get the patient to swallow and digest have failed, the physician will consider an enteral feeding tube. If the patient’s mouth or throat is not functioning and the patient needs short-term enteral nutrition, it is likely the physician will use a nasogastric (NG) tube. After the patient is locally anesthetized, a nurse or doctor will insert the tube through one of the nostrils and guide the tube down the esophagus into the stomach. These tubes may be slightly uncomfortable, but should not cause pain. Placement of this tube should be done by a licensed professional and rechecked before each feeding.

For longer-term care, it may be more convenient and comfortable to use a gastric enteral feeding tube, also called a G tube or button. These are also recommended when there is an obstruction in the esophagus or damage to the face that makes an NG tube contraindicated. The G tube is inserted directly into the stomach through an incision in the abdominal wall, just below the ribcage. Though are several types of gastric tubes, physicians commonly give the patient a percutaneous endoscopic gastrostomy tube (PEG tube). This tube is placed through a minimally invasive endoscopic surgery, in which the doctor uses imaging tools to avoid open surgery.

Another common insertion for an enteral feeding tube is the middle segment of the small intestine, called the jejunum. This is also typically performed endoscopically and is used when the stomach cannot function. The jejunostomy tube (J tube) requires more involved care and must be used with an enteral feeding pump, a machine that regulates feeding amounts and times. In addition to a feeding pump, the nasal and gastric enteral feeding tube may be used with a syringe or the gravity drip method.

In the syringe method of feeding, a syringe filled with nutritious formula is connected to the tube and the formula is allowed to flow into the stomach. This is the cheapest and simplest method of feeding. The gravity drip method connects the enteral feeding tube to a gravity feeding bag. The formula then drips into the tube with the help of gravity. Many patients administering home enteral nutrition (HEN) independently choose to administer feedings at night so that they can go about their day normally without being attached to a bag or pump. Both PEG tubes and J tubes should not cause pain after recovery and are often not visible through clothes.

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