What is tube feeding?

Tube feeding, or enteral feeding, is the delivery of liquid nutrition through a small tube directly into the stomach or the first part of the small intestine. Tube feeding may be necessary for people who have difficulty swallowing or are unable to eat enough food to meet their needs.

Tube feedings can be temporary, as part of rehabilitation until a person can eat again, or long-term for chronic medical conditions requiring nutritional support. People with feeding tubes may still be eating and drinking some foods and liquids by mouth.

Tube feeding is only one method of supplementing the nutritional needs of people with various diseases, disorders and conditions. Discuss all of your nutritional options with your doctor to understand which options are right for you.  

Types of tube feeding

The types of tube feeding include:

  • Gastrostomy (G) tubes are surgically inserted through the skin of the abdomen (belly) directly into the stomach.
  • Jejunal (J) tubes are surgically inserted through the skin of the abdomen (belly) directly into the jejunum (first part of the small intestine).
  • Nasogastric (NG) tubes are inserted through the nose into the stomach.
  • Nasojejunal (NJ) tubes are inserted through the nose into the first portion of the small intestine or jejunum. 

Why is tube feeding performed? 

Your doctor may recommend tube feeding for diseases and conditions that affect your ability to swallow or take in enough food to meet your needs. These include:

  • Cancer including oral, esophageal and stomach cancer, and side effects from cancer treatment including mouth or throat sores, severe nausea, loss of appetite, and unintentional weight loss
  • Congenital (present at birth) conditions including abnormalities of the mouth, esophagus, stomach or intestines
  • Critical conditions including critically ill or injured patients requiring mechanical ventilation
  • Eating disorders including anorexia nervosa
  • Failure to thrive including an adult’s inability to maintain weight or a child’s inability to gain weight or grow appropriately
  • Gastrointestinal (GI) disorders including liver, pancreatic, and stomach disorders
  • Neurologic conditions including stroke, Alzheimer’s disease, and advanced dementia
  • Neuromuscular disorders including muscular dystrophy, spinal cord defects, cerebral palsy, and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease)
  • Prematurity including developmental delays and sucking and swallowing difficulties in premature infants

Who performs tube feeding?

A registered nurse (RN) or a doctor inserts a nasogastric (NG) feeding tube. 

Complex types of feeding tubes include nasojejunal (NJ) tubes, gastrostomy (G) tubes, and jejunal (J) tubes. Placement of these feeding tubes occurs in a radiology or surgery department in a hospital. Procedures are performed by the following specialists:

  • General surgeons specialize in the surgical treatment of a wide variety of diseases, disorders and conditions. 
  • Radiologists specialize in using radiation and other imaging techniques to diagnose and treat a wide variety of conditions from broken bones and birth defects to cancer. 
  • Interventional radiologists and vascular radiologists specialize in diagnosing and treating diseases using radiation and other imaging technologies.

How is a tube feeding performed?

Your feeding tube will be inserted in your hospital room, outpatient clinic, or office setting. Insertion of a nasogastric (NG) tube takes five to 10 minutes and generally involves these steps:

  1. Your provider will numb your throat with a spray that contains a local anesthetic.
  2. Your provider will insert a flexible, lubricated feeding tube through your nose and feed it into the stomach. You will need to swallow to help move the tube through your esophagus.   
  3. Your provider will check placement of the tube by listening to your stomach with a stethoscope as a small amount of air is pushed into the stomach. An X-ray may be taken to check placement. 

Insertion of a nasojejunal (NJ) tube, gastrostomy (G) tube, or jejunal (J) tube takes about 30 minutes to an hour in a radiology or surgery department in a hospital. The procedure generally includes these steps: