Do Tubes Affect Swallow Function? A Review of the Evidence

By Debra Suiter, Ph.D., CCC-SLP, BCS-S


Feeding tubes are used frequently for individuals who cannot take oral nutrition safely or who cannot maintain their nutrition and hydration needs. Nasogastric tubes are the most frequently used alternative means of nutrition, although orogastric feeding tubes may be used for some patients such as those who have suffered facial trauma.1-3 Because an orogastric tube traverses the entire pathway that a bolus travels during all 3 stages of swallowing (from the mouth through the pharynx and into the stomach), it is often assumed that its presence may result in increased risk of aspiration. Although nasogastric tubes do not cross the oral cavity, they do traverse the pharynx and esophagus, and whether their presence increases aspiration risk is often a concern for clinicians. There are a number of studies that have examined the effects of various tubes in the oropharynx and esophagus on aspiration status in individuals with normal swallowing function and those who are risk for dysphagia. This article will review the current state of the evidence.


The effects of the presence of foreign objects, such as orogastric and nasogastric feeding tubes and manometric tubes in the pharynx during swallowing have been studied in individuals with normal swallow function,4,5 with dysphagia subsequent to stroke,6,7 as well as with a broad range of medical diagnoses.8,9 Findings have been equivocal. Some reports have noted significant alterations in swallow physiology. Huggins et al.4 found statistically significant changes in swallow duration measures, i.e., decreased duration of stage transition (initiation of the pharyngeal swallow) and increased duration of pharyngeal response as a result of feeding tube placement, in 10 young adults with normal swallow function. Effects on swallow duration measures were greater for wide-bore than for fine-bore tubes. The authors hypothesized that decreased duration of stage transition in the presence of a nasogastric tube could be due to mechanical stimulation of the pharyngeal walls or indicate an anticipatory behavior such as that observed by Kidder et al. in response to presence of an endoscope tube in the pharynx.10 Although changes in swallow duration were noted in the Huggins et al study, none of the non-temporal measures of swallowing, such as bolus containment and pharyngeal clearance, were significantly affected.

Similar results were found in 22 individuals with dysphagia following stroke.7 Although no differences reached statistical significance, several swallow duration times appeared to be affected by presence of a nasogastric feeding tube. Specifically, oral transit and pharyngeal transit times were decreased when the nasogastric tube was removed. In contrast to Huggins et al., the authors observed decreased duration of stage transition when the nasogastric feeding tube was removed. The authors suggested that the prolonged duration of tube placement in their participants (average time = 20.3 days) resulted in sensory accommodation in the pharynx and delayed initiation of the pharyngeal swallow.

Robbins et al.5 examined the effects of manometry tube placement in the pharynx and, similar to feeding tube effects noted previously, found significant alterations in swallow duration measures, i.e., increases in duration of hyoid maximal elevation and duration of hyoid maximal anterior excursion. In addition, the presence of a manometry tube led to a higher incidence of laryngeal penetration for the oldest subjects (>70 years old).

Others have reported that there is no difference in swallow safety between tube in and tube out conditions. deLarminat and colleagues8 compared swallow latency times in two groups of patients, one with and one without nasogastric tubes in place and found no differences between conditions. Dziewas et al.6 completed FEES with 25 individuals with stroke with and without a nasogastric tube in place and found no differences in salient findings, i.e., saliva pooling, spillage, residue, and penetration-aspiration scale scores, between conditions. Leder and Suiter9 examined a large, heterogeneous sample of patients, 630 with and 630 without a nasogastric tube in place, and found no statistically significant differences in incidence of aspiration between the two groups. However, presence of a nasogastric tube did appear to increase the amount of residue in the valleculae and the pyriform sinuses (p < .05). Subsequent studies in which the effects of nasogastric11 and orogastric12 were evaluated within the same individual, no significant differences for aspiration status were found between tube in or out conditions. Finally, Butler and colleagues13 evaluated swallowing endoscopically with and without a manometric catheter in place and found no differences in penetration-aspiration scores between conditions.

In the only study to date that specifically examined effects of presence of a flexible endoscope on swallow physiology, Suiter and Moorhead14 completed VFSS in a group of 14 individuals with normal swallow function. Swallow function was examined with and without a flexible endoscope placed in the pharynx. Although not statistically significant, differences were found in swallow duration measures. Stage transition duration was nearly twice as long for the scope out condition as for the scope in condition. In addition, duration of hyoid maximum excursion and duration of maximum hyoid anterior movement were shorter during the scope in condition. No differences in residue scale scores, number of swallows to clear the bolus, or penetration-aspiration scale scores were noted.

Research indicates there are alterations in swallow physiology when a nasogastric feeding tube is present, although aspiration does not appear to increase. Removal of a feeding tube prior to instrumental assessment of swallowing is not necessary. It is important to bear in mind that swallow physiology of older individuals appears to be particularly susceptible to the impact that a foreign object in the pharynx has on swallow physiology. Additionally, placement of a flexible endoscope for the evaluation of swallowing has been found to effect some swallow duration measures in individuals with normal swallow function.


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    Author Biography

    Suiter_photoDr. Debra Suiter is a Speech-Language Pathologist at the VA Medical Center in Memphis, TN. She teaches the graduate-level dysphagia course at the University of Memphis and has done so for the past 11 years. Her research has focused primarily on screening and assessment of swallowing disorders. Additional interests include: how what we do to treat/assess our patients affects swallow physiology (e.g., if we put a tube (feeding, endoscopic, etc.) in someone’s pharynx, is the swallow physiology altered? If so, are we making appropriate treatment recommendations for these individuals?). She has been involved in leadership of SIG 13 in different capacities for the past 9 years and just got elected Chair of the Board of Special Interest Group Coordinators. She is a member of Dysphagia Research Society, and a BCS-S.

    She is an avid runner. She currently lives across the street from Elvis’ first house (the one he bought before Graceland).