A woman discusses a matter with her doctor.

5 questions about using a feeding tube, answered

Cancer and Nutrition, Diet and Nutrition

Written by Sean O'Nan, a registered dietitian at UK Markey Cancer Center.

For many patients, the idea of tube feeding can be scary. But if you are having difficulty eating or drinking by mouth, enteral nutrition (also known as “tube feeding”) can be a helpful tool to provide an alternate route for nutrition and medication access.

So, what do you need to know about tube feeding? Below are some common questions patients and caregivers have about tube feeding and helpful information to get you started:

How do you use a feeding tube? Depending on the type of tube you have, there are multiple ways to use them for feedings:

  • Pumps are often used while you are in the hospital as it allows you to set a specific rate (mL/hour) for the formula to go through the tube and can even add in extra water for hydration. Pumps can be a good option for patients who are having a difficult time tolerating tube feedings and can be used with a special backpack to allow for more mobility.
  • Gravity bags are similar to a pump by allowing formula to flow through at an adjustable rate, but they allow more flexibility for feeding times. Unlike the pump, people using gravity bags may only have to feed for a few hours each day.
  • Syringes are a more “hands-on” approach to using a feeding tube as they can be used with or without the plunger. This method can allow the most mobility for tube feedings and is often used to flush the feeding tube before and after feedings. 

What can I put through the tube? When using enteral nutrition, you have many options to choose from to help maintain good nutritional status. Commercial formulas are made to provide you the right amount of nutrients to meet your personalized health needs. If you will be using your tube for long-term nutrition, ask your dietitian about the possibility of insurance coverage for tube feeding formula and supplies.

It's also important to only use your feeding tube as directed by your medical team. This will help ensure that it continues to work properly and prevents blockages or leaks.

Will I always need a feeding tube? Not always. Some patients may require a feeding tube long-term, while others are able to have them removed when they are able to safely meet their nutritional needs by mouth. These tubes are often removed in the clinic by your doctor, with no need for a lengthy procedure.

What about going out in public? It is estimated that approximately 400,000 Americans use home tube feedings. It’s possible you have met someone who uses tube feedings and didn’t even know it. For those with a feeding tube placed through the skin, it may be easy to hide under clothing. While tubes placed in the nose are more visible, you can still partially hide them by tucking the tube behind your ear when not in use.

What if I have additional questions? When talking with your doctor and dietitian about tube feeding, be sure to discuss any concerns you may have as well as your daily routine. Though tube feedings may be necessary, it is also important to help you maintain a good quality of life. Your medical team can help explain your different feeding options and can personalize a home regimen that will meet your specific needs. The Oley Foundation and ASPEN also have additional information that may be helpful when educating yourself on the use of home tube feedings.

For additional information regarding diet and nutrition for cancer patients at Markey Cancer Center, please call 859-323-2798 and ask to speak with a registered dietitian.

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