A feeding tube is a medical tube that is inserted into the patient’s digestive tract and delivers liquid nutrients and medicines to the body. This is recommended in patients who are unable to eat normally due to oral cancer, surgery, injury, or another condition that affects the normal ingestion and digestion process. A feeding tube may be placed in several locations along the digestive tract, depending on the needs of the patient. Common locations of tube insertion, or intubation, include the nose, the stomach, and the jejunum of the small intestine.
If it will only be needed for a short period of time, a feeding tube might be inserted through the opening of the nose and run down the throat, into the stomach. This is called a nasogastric tube, or NG tube. Naso- refers to nose, and gastric refers to the stomach. Nasogastric intubation bypasses the mouth and throat and delivers nutrition and medicine directly to the stomach. This procedure uses gravity to move the liquid down the tube to the stomach and is common in patients with severe anorexia nervosa and cancer of the mouth or throat.
A gastric tube, also called a G-tube or button, is inserted surgically through an incision in the belly. These tubes deliver food directly to the stomach and are used in patients who need long-term feeding. Such patients are often severely malnourished, have neurological problems that prevent swallowing, or a physical block to digestion in the mouth or throat.
The most common method of gastric intubation is the percutaneous endoscopic gastrostomy (PEG), a minimally invasive surgery that uses an endoscope to guide the placement of the tube into the stomach. An endoscope is a flexible or rigid tube with a lighted viewing device that transmits images to a fiberscope or screen so that the doctor can see inside the body without conducting open surgery. Insertion of the PEG tube usually takes around twenty minutes and causes little discomfort. The tube will have some mechanism near its end that prevents the tube from falling out of the belly. The tube usually can’t be seen through clothes and can be left in for up to six months.
If the stomach is not fit for a feeding tube, doctors may elect to give the patient a jejunostomy tube (J-tube), instead. The J-tube is surgically inserted through the abdominal wall into the jejunum, the middle portion of the small intestine. The small intestine is the next organ after the stomach in the digestive tract and is used for the breaking down and absorption of food. Like a gastric tube, the surgery can be done endoscopically or as an open surgery.
Depending on the cause of surgery, the patient may be able to return home and administer food and medicine independently. Nurses or doctors will teach the patient how to use and maintain the feeding tube based on the particular case at hand. In general, the tube and the skin around the tube should be cleaned daily with cotton pads or a washcloth and soapy water. For the first four to six weeks, however, the patient should take care not to wet the area too much when bathing. The tube should be flushed out with lukewarm water every six hours or after each feeding, as well as every time a feeding is interrupted.