A tracheotomy is a surgical procedure that is used to make a hole from the outside of a person’s neck directly into the trachea, sometimes called the windpipe. This hole, called either a stoma or a tracheostomy, is necessary when a person is not able to breathe by normal means for any of a number of reasons. A tracheal cannula is a tube that is inserted in the opening so that the hole is unable to close over.
There are many different reasons a person might require a tracheotomy and end up with a tracheal cannula placed in his or her neck. Some emergency situations, such as an accident or a fire that causes the inside of the throat to swell, require an immediate tracheotomy. Other conditions, such as Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) or certain cancers may require a patient to be fitted with a tracheal cannula to facilitate the use of a respirator that will literally breathe for the patient.
When performing the tracheotomy, a doctor can choose the type of tracheal cannula that is most appropriate for the situation. Some types of these tubes are made to be left in place indefinitely. These are typically referred to as long-term, and have features that make them suited for this type of use. Of particular importance is an extremely smooth, polished exterior that is intended to encourage the stoma to heal properly. The long-term tracheal cannula is also carefully fitted to the patient and goes just inside the windpipe, but does not protrude into the airway.
Another feature of the long-term tracheal cannula is that some models can be fitted with a speaking valve, allowing the patient to be able to talk despite having had a tracheotomy. Since the stoma interferes with normal breathing, speech is impacted, since the ability to speak depends on being able to allow air to pass through the larynx. Some speaking valves require that a finger be placed over the tube to force the air over the vocal cords, but other valves handle this function automatically.
A short-term tracheal cannula is similar to the long-term tube, but it is designed to be used for a short period, after which it should be removed. The cannula is typically made of a soft, flexible material such as silicone, and can be trimmed to fit it to the patient. It may be placed as a result of a medical emergency or as part of a planned surgery leading to the placement of a long-term tracheal cannula.