Tube Talk: Feeding Tubes 101

Our intestines are kind of a love-it or hate-it topic, with most preferring the later. Don’t worry! This post is about how we get nutrition and tubes, not about the dreaded lower GI tract issues!

Feeding tubes, also called enteral nutrition, are a common and often a life-saving treatment that provides nutrition to individuals unable to eat. Many people are unfamiliar with feeding tubes unless they or a family member have required one. Other may have heard of them during the “Terri” Schiavo case from 1990 to 2005. More recently feeding tubes made headlines with the ill-advised KE Diet. In the United States it is estimated that there are currently 437,882 consumers of enteral nutrition living at home. These numbers do not include the thousands of individuals that are hospitalized and receiving feeding tubes temporarily.

So what is a feeding tube?

 Feeding tubes uses a small flexible tube to provide nutrients, fluids, and meds to the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. When someone is unable to eat enough by mouth the feeding tube acts likes the esophagus and provides a new way to get the nutrition where it needs to go.

These tubes can be temporary or used for entire lifetime. There are also multiple types of tubes that can be used depending on the individual’s situation, but they all deliver nutrients to either the stomach or the small intestines. Fun Fact: President James A. Garfield received a feeding tube after his assassination attempt. However, his nutrition was delivered by enema to his colon – sciences still had a lot to learn back then!

tube feeding anatomy

Individuals living at home with feeding tubes can go to school or work, play sports, and live an active life. Some are even able to eat certain types or amounts of foods in addition to their feeding tube.

Why would someone need a feeding tube?

 The basic reason: everyone needs nutrition! Adults, children and babies can require a feeding tube if they are unable to get enough nutrition for a many different reasons.

The most common reasons for adults:

  • Swallowing issues due to stroke, multiple sclerosis, or Parkinson’s disease
  • Some type of cancers, such as head and neck or gastric cancer
  • Cystic fibrosis
  • AIDS
  • Dementia and head injuries

The most common reasons for children & infants:

  • Swallowing issues due to cerebral palsy, anoxic brain injury, or seizure disorder
  • Failure to Thrive or malnutrition
  • GI disorders
  • Severe allergies
  • Food refusal behavior
  • Some pulmonary and cardiac diseases
7 mo NG Baby
Photo by

***Take Away Points***

  • Life goes on with a feeding tube! With some training, planning, and a little trial and error, a feeding tube alone will not stop someone from living an active life. Seriously, there are marathon runners with feeding tube.
  • Not all feeding tubes are permanent. They also don’t mean no eating or drinking.
  • A feeding tube is not a sign of “failure”. It is a tool to help the body gets the nutrition it needs when it needs it!

Have you had a feeding tube or do you have a friend or family members with one? Feel free to share your story below!

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