Enteral Nutrition: Tube Feeding Basics
Getting started on enteral feeding, or “tube feeding,” can feel overwhelming and even challenging at first. There’s new terminology to learn, new instructions to follow and new tools to master. However, once you start to understand the basics, enteral feeding can quickly become a normal part of everyday life – and, importantly, an easy and reliable way to get the daily nutrition that’s needed.
Getting to Know Your Feeding Tube
Your feeding tube provides you with enteral nutrition – nourishment that’s delivered directly to your stomach or small intestines. Enteral feeding can be a life-saving solution for anyone who has difficulty eating enough food by mouth, whether it’s due to reduced appetite, increased nutrient needs, difficulty chewing or swallowing, illness or surgery that interferes with eating. An estimated 250,000 people receive enteral nutrition during a hospital stay and more than 400,000 people use feeding tubes at home.
There are several different types of feeding tubes, and your doctor will help determine which type of tube is right for you. For longer-term use, some of the most common types of feeding tubes include:
- A gastrostomy tube (G-tube) is a surgically placed so that the tube passes through the abdominal wall directly into the stomach, and are usually for longer-term feeding.
- A Percutaneous endoscopic gastronomy tube (PEG-tube) is a type of G-tube named after the type of procedure that’s used to put it into place: a long, flexible instrument called an endoscope. A doctor makes a small incision in your upper abdomen, places the tube through the incision and connects the tube to your stomach.
- A jejunostomy tube (J-Tube) is a tube that is inserted directly into the jejunum, which is the upper portion of the small intestine, and it’s surgically placed similarly to the G-tube or endoscopically placed similarly to the PEG tube.
Occasionally a feeding tube can feel uncomfortable or cause a little soreness around your abdomen where the tube was placed. Adjusting your sleeping position and taking care to clean and maintain your tube can help prevent discomfort, and you’ll find you can still do most activities as you always have.
However, you should call your doctor right away if you experience any of the following complications:
- Signs of infection (swelling, pain, redness)
- A blockage inside the tube preventing food to pass through
- Leaking around the tube
- Dislodgement of the tube
Finding the Right Enteral Nutrition for You
In addition to providing the medications and fluids you need, feeding tubes can deliver enteral nutrition, also known as your tube feeding “formula.” These complete formulas contain all of the essential nutrients in liquid form, from carbohydrates, protein and fat to vitamins and minerals. Enteral nutrition not only helps prevent deficiencies and malnutrition but also supports growth and overall health. Depending on your medical situation, you may rely on enteral feeding for all of your nutrition needs, or you may use it to supplement whatever you’re able to eat by mouth.
Different tube feeding formulas provide different advantages, and your healthcare provider can help you determine what type of formula makes the most sense for you:
- Elemental or semi-elemental peptide-based formulas
- Blenderized with real food ingredients
For example, someone with diabetes or kidney disease may require a specialized formula. On the other hand, a specialized elemental or semi-elemental tube feeding formula may work best if you have a gastrointestinal (GI) disorder. Because these specialized semi-elemental peptide-based formulas are made with ingredients that are easier for some to digest and absorb, they may be better tolerated by people with GI issues or other conditions that affect food digestion and absorption, like inflammatory bowel disease, gastroparesis or pancreatitis.
Talk to your doctor or dietitian about which type of enteral nutrition makes the most sense for you. And, once you’ve mastered the basics of enteral feeding, take a tube feeding deep-dive to learn more.