The systematic review of evidence also shows that the practice may increase the risk of some postoperative complications.
Cessation of bowel activity is one of the body's responses to the trauma of surgery for conditions such as appendicitis, gallstones, stomach and intestinal cancer, gynecological disorders and abdominal injury. Resumption of digestive processes is the key factor that determines when these surgical patients can leave the hospital.
"Hospital stay has been the buzzword of the last 20 years because that's what costs all the money," says lead author Dr. Richard Nelson, a colorectal surgeon at the University of Illinois College of Medicine. "We'd send everybody home the same day if we thought they could eat," he says.
The rationale for routinely inserting a flexible tube through the nose and into the stomach has been that keeping the digestive tract empty would help it restart more quickly. Surgeons also commonly believe that the practice reduces the likelihood of vomiting and related aspiration pneumonia.
This reasoning may look good on paper, says Nelson, but like many medical practices of the past it was based more on intuition than evidence.
"When I was a resident every person who had a cut in their tummy had a nasogastric tube put in when they went to sleep and we left it in until they had a formed stool eight to 10 days later," says Nelson. "It was just routine. It sounded good, sounded rational."
A 1995 review of abdominal surgery trials showed that except for vomiting and bloating, patients actually fared better without the routine use of nasogastric tubes. However in some of the studies tube use was not randomly assigned, which may have produced biased results.