For many people, eating and drinking are one of the pleasures they enjoy in life. But for people with problems swallowing, including people with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or ALS, eating can become a chore or even a frightening experience as the risk of choking increases. For patients with ALS, a feeding tube can often improve quality of life by improving nutrition and eliminating the risk of choking.
ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, is a neuromuscular condition that gradually causes the muscles in the body to stop working as the signals from the brain no longer get to the intended muscle tissue. ALS affects all the muscles in the body, including the muscles in the face, mouth, and tongue. As the muscles in the face lose their ability to function, patients who have ALS develop dysphagia, which is difficulty swallowing.
How ALS causes choking
Weak muscles in the face and jaw may cause problems with chewing which result in food pieces that are too large when they are swallowed. Weakness in the tongue muscles makes moving food around in the mouth more difficult, which also interferes with chewing. Weak muscles in the mouth and tongue also have a hard time moving food to the back of mouth and the swallowing reflex may be weaker and harder to trigger. In addition, the muscles that work to close the voice box may react more slowly or not at all, allowing food or liquids to go down the “wrong way” into the lungs resulting in choking.
What is a feeding tube?
Feeding tubes are one product medical science has developed to help keep patients from choking and ensure they are getting enough nutrients and water. For short-term use, a narrow plastic tube can be inserted into the nose and passed through the esophagus to the stomach. For long-term use, such as with ALS, the feeding tube is inserted through the wall of the abdomen or belly directly into the stomach. This allows food, water, and medication to be given directly to the stomach without going through the mouth.
How feeding tubes help