What Is a Miller-Abbott Tube?

Dan Harkins
Dan Harkins
Patients with intestinal blockages may experience nausea and vomiting.
Patients with intestinal blockages may experience nausea and vomiting.

The Miller-Abbott tube is a surgical instrument developed in the 1930s for diagnosing and treating gastric disorders or blockages in the digestive system. Still largely unchanged in 2011, this tube is 10 feet (about 3 m) long and inserted through the mouth or nose. Weaving down the esophagus and into the stomach, the tube is capable of a handful of jobs at this point, from suctioning gastric juices for testing and irrigation to ballooning open the entryway to the small intestine, called the duodenum, for clearer radiology testing and easier removal of many intestinal blockages.

An abdominal X-ray may be used to diagnose intestinal blockages.
An abdominal X-ray may be used to diagnose intestinal blockages.

The Miller-Abbott tube is named after American gastroenterologists William Osler Abbott and Thomas Grier Miller. These doctors also pioneered the surgical procedures that set the stage for easier diagnosis and removal of stomach and intestinal lesions, blockages and ulcers. According to a 1939 report by Columbia University doctors, published online by the National Institutes of Health, incidences of death due to intestinal blockages, called ileum, were reduced by 66 percent after the advent of the Miller-Abbott tube.

The Miller-Abbott tube is an instrument used to diagnose and treat gastric disorders or blockages.
The Miller-Abbott tube is an instrument used to diagnose and treat gastric disorders or blockages.

What makes it most useful is its double-barreled design. One of the pipes, called a lumen, is responsible for pumping up a thin balloon at the tip for easy exploration into the intestines at the duodenum. The other lumen tube can then suction fluids out or pump fluids in, depending on the procedure. For radiology, a barium solution can be pumped into the duodenum to isolate potential damage and produce clear images of it. Allowing the tube to proceed into the intestines also might help dislodge identified blockages causing pain or digestive disorders.

Miller and Abbott pioneered the surgical procedures that led to easier diagnosis and removal of stomach and intestinal lesions.
Miller and Abbott pioneered the surgical procedures that led to easier diagnosis and removal of stomach and intestinal lesions.

In 2011, the Miller-Abbott tube might be accompanied by another, called a laparoscope. This latter tube combines a light and camera to give physicians a three-dimensional, colored view of whatever blockage is occurring. It can also help the doctor know exactly when the Miller-Abbott tube's balloon is at the perfect location in the duodenum — a process that depends on the slow and steady peristaltic contractions of the digestive tract.

The Miller-Abbott tube goes down the esophagus to the stomach.
The Miller-Abbott tube goes down the esophagus to the stomach.

Several types of specialized tubes are used for a range of modern intubation procedures, each unique to the task at hand. For instance, the salem sump tube is double-lumened like the Miller-Abbott; however, its suction tubing is accompanied by another just for the simple task of venting air. Another common instrument, the levin tube, has a single lumen just for pumping out a stomach fast.

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    • Patients with intestinal blockages may experience nausea and vomiting.
      Patients with intestinal blockages may experience nausea and vomiting.
    • An abdominal X-ray may be used to diagnose intestinal blockages.
      An abdominal X-ray may be used to diagnose intestinal blockages.
    • The Miller-Abbott tube is an instrument used to diagnose and treat gastric disorders or blockages.
      The Miller-Abbott tube is an instrument used to diagnose and treat gastric disorders or blockages.
    • Miller and Abbott pioneered the surgical procedures that led to easier diagnosis and removal of stomach and intestinal lesions.
      Miller and Abbott pioneered the surgical procedures that led to easier diagnosis and removal of stomach and intestinal lesions.
    • The Miller-Abbott tube goes down the esophagus to the stomach.
      The Miller-Abbott tube goes down the esophagus to the stomach.