What is Nutritional Support?

Erin J. Hill

Nutritional support is a form of medical intervention which requires a tube to be inserted into the stomach in order for liquid nutrition to sustain a patient who cannot eat or swallow. This is also called a feeding tube or enteral feeding. Tubal feedings can be used both in the short and long term. Those with chronic conditions may require nutritional support for months or even years.

Doctor taking notes
Doctor taking notes

Short-term nutritional support usually requires the tube to be placed through the nose, down the esophagus, and then directly into the stomach. Fluids can then pass through the tube to provide liquid foods, hydration, and sometimes medication to patients who cannot consume them normally. Patients who require long-term support can have a gastric tube put in place. This refers to a feeding tube which is inserted directly through the abdomen and into the stomach. It can be closed off between feedings to allow greater mobility.

Patients or parents of patients who use a long term gastric tube can learn to open and close the end of the tube and deliver meals. This allows them to live at home without the need for a doctor or nurse to administer feedings. These patients will still need to be monitored by a doctor routinely, and the initial insertion of the tube will still need to be placed by a trained professional. Patients or their families will also generally be trained in how to clean the equipment between feedings.

Feeding tubes must be cleaned routinely to prevent clogging. When a clog occurs, the tube may need to be replaced. Water should be run through the tube after each feeding to prevent this from happening.

Common instances when nutritional support may be needed include during a chronic illness, in patients with swallowing difficulties, and in premature infants who have not yet developed the ability to suck or swallow properly. In most cases enteral feeding is only temporary, but in some very severe cases a patient may need to use nutritional support for years. This is most common in those with certain dietary or metabolic disorders, those with certain facial deformities that make eating normally impossible, or those with a serious medical condition.

The type of liquid diet a patient is put on will depend on the condition being treated. Most fluids contain electrolytes, vitamins and minerals. Young infants who are using enteral feedings temporarily are often fed their mother's colostrum or breast milk, or a specialized infant formula.

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