What is a cochlear implant?
A cochlear implant is a small electronic device that does the work of the damaged inner ear. Unlike a hearing aid, which amplifies sound, the cochlear implant actually takes in the sound and then sends the sound signals to the brain. Although cochlear implants do not restore or create normal hearing, they provide a sense of sound. Cochlear implants help patients to interpret the sounds and understand speech. Most totally deaf patients who receive cochlear implants are able to detect medium to loud sounds, including speech at comfortable listening levels. For many patients, implants aid in communication by improving lip-reading ability. For some, the implant even provides some understanding of words or sentences without the use of lip-reading. Most patients feel that the cochlear implant has a positive effect on their relationships, work, and daily life.
Am I a candidate for a cochlear implant?
This is an important topic, which you can discuss in detail at your appointment. In general, hearing must be within the level of “severe-to-profound” in one or both ears, and the ability to understand words must be poor. When hearing aids are no longer helpful, it may be time for a cochlear implant.
The first step in cochlear implant evaluation is to test your hearing. You will need a routine hearing test (an audiogram) as well as specialized hearing tests with your hearing aids on. We will perform either a computed tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance image (MRI) scan to look at the anatomy of your inner ear and hearing nerves.
What cochlear implant devices are available?
We offer devices from all cochlear implant companies that have FDA-approved products available in the United States. The types of devices are ever-expanding, and we offer cochlear implants featuring the latest technologies and advances. We also offer “hybrid” (or electroacoustic) devices that combine a cochlear implant with a hearing aid. When you meet with the audiologist, he/she will review the devices and help you come to a choice that best fits you or your child. After surgery has been performed, it is also possible to regularly update the external portion of the device (the speech processor) as new models become available. Our audiologists will explain the wide variety of accessory technologies. Many of these technologies allow connections with mobile devices and assistive listening technology. Most insurance companies cover the cost of cochlear implantation.
What can I expect from cochlear implant surgery?
Surgery is performed under general anesthesia. An incision is made behind the ear, which will eventually heal in a natural crease or be hidden by the hair. The bone behind the ear is drilled in order to reach the cochlea, which is the part of the inner ear responsible for hearing. The main body of the cochlear implant is then placed against the bone of the skull, and an electrode (a thin wire) is placed inside the cochlea. The wound is then closed with stitches. The cochlear implant is completely covered by your skin and muscles. Nothing comes through the skin.
After surgery, a bandage will be placed over the area for several days. You may go home the same day, or stay a night in the hospital. This depends on your age, your health, and the surgeon. Healing occurs over several weeks. Once healing is complete, the internal component of the cochlear implant is not visible.
When will the device be turned on and what will it sound like?
The device will be activated (turned on for the first time) about three weeks after surgery. The first time you hear with with a cochlear implant, the sounds are often “electronic” sounding. With time and practice, the sound will become more natural. Learning occurs over months to years. The more you use the device, the better your ultimate hearing ability will be. Most people have a significant improvement in understanding speech.