Cochlear implants – what they are and how they work

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A cochlear implant is an electronic device that gives hearing to a person who has a severe or profound hearing loss. A cochlear implant does is not a cure for deafness, but an electronic device that copies the function of the cochlea and stimulates the auditory nerve. There are over 250,000 users world-wide. Remember to always look after your child’s hearing to prevent problems.

The expectations of how well a cochlear implant will help someone hear have to be addressed prior to implantation, as although the device can help the person hear better and detect environmental  sounds, it is not as good as the quality of sound processed by a natural cochlea and therefore will not restore hearing to normal levels. Implants can be a significant improvement for the person in comparison to hearing aids. If the person being implanted has lost their hearing after they have learnt language, cochlear implants can be a great help.

Unfortunately, there are still risks attached to surgery and a possibility that the surgery will fail and will not restore hearing. Having said that, cochlear implants are the world’s most successful medical prostheses in that less than 0.2% of recipients reject it or do not use it and the failure rate needing reimplantation is around 0.5%.

How do cochlear implants work?

A cochlear implant is very different from a hearing aid. Hearing aids amplify sounds so they may be detected by damaged ears. Cochlear implants bypass damaged portions of the ear and directly stimulate the auditory nerve. Signals generated by the implant are sent by way of the auditory nerve to the brain, which recognizes the signals as sound. Hearing through a cochlear implant is different from normal hearing and takes time to learn or relearn. However, it allows many people to recognize warning signals, understand other sounds in the environment, and understand speech in person or over the telephone.

 

What happens during cochlear implant surgery?

During the operation the surgeon makes an incision behind the ear being treated in order to gain access into the middle ear and cochlea. The surrounding area behind the ear will be shaved to facilitate this and this will quickly regrow. The operation lasts about three hours and typically people spend one night in hospital.

The operation is delicate and intricate rather than dangerous because no vital organs are disturbed. There are no serious attendant risks with this operation beyond those normally associated with major surgery. People are requested not to wash their hair for three weeks during this healing process but there are no other restrictions on normal activities.

The future of cochlear implants…

Scientists are exploring whether using a shortened electrode array, inserted into a portion of the cochlea, for example, can help individuals whose hearing loss is limited to the higher frequencies while preserving their hearing of lower frequencies. Researchers also are looking at the potential benefits of pairing a cochlear implant in one ear with either another cochlear implant or a hearing aid in the other ear.

Get a medical opinion if you suspect any hearing problems in your child. They may need a hearing test.