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Nasogastric (NG) aspiration is used to remove liquid contents from the stomach and decompress the stomach and small bowel. The need for NG aspiration often varies with the clinical presentation (Table 1). Gastric decompression is useful in small bowel obstruction, although some studies have shown that medical therapy with octreotide or somatostatin has allowed safe treatment of bowel obstruction associated with malignancy.1,2 NG aspiration and decompression are no longer considered routine for the treatment of adynamic ileus.3,4 Removal of liquid contents is useful in cases of GI bleeding, but not all patients with GI bleeding require NG aspiration.

Table 1 Selection of Patients for Nasogastric Aspiration

In GI bleeding, a common and controversial situation for NG aspiration,6 aspiration of stomach contents can localize the source of bleeding, indicate the rate of bleeding, and clear the stomach for endoscopy. Patients with hematemesis virtually always have an upper GI source, and NG aspiration is helpful to assess the rate of hemorrhage rather than identify the source. In significant upper GI bleeding, such as suggested by refractory hemodynamic instability or large quantities of bright red bloody emesis, the rate of bleeding can determine the success of medical interventions and the need for emergent endoscopy. When the clinical picture suggests a slower rate of bleeding, such as with coffee-ground emesis or blood-streaked emesis, the need for NG aspiration is less clear because less sensitive methods of assessing the rate of hemorrhage, such as observation of spontaneous bleeding, hemodynamic assessment, and serial hematocrit measurement, are often adequate.

In patients without hematemesis, NG aspiration lacks sensitivity to detect an upper GI source.7,8 Although it has been reported that 10% of patients with hematochezia have an upper GI source, many of these are from a duodenal source and are beyond the reach of the NG tube.9 Most patients with melena have an upper GI source and require upper endoscopy regardless of the results of NG aspiration. In severe, ongoing rectal bleeding with hemodynamic instability, NG aspiration is relatively useful because severe upper GI bleeding is generally easier to stop than severe lower GI bleeding.

The literature is riddled with case reports of bizarre mishaps resulting from the use of NG tubes, some of which are listed in Table 2. However, the rate of adverse effects has not been systematically addressed. The main morbidity from the procedure is probably related ...

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