There are varying tools available to help people who struggle with hearing loss, and one of those is a cochlear implant. Cochlear implants are typically for children and adults who are severely hard-of-hearing or deaf. 

Approval from the FDA for cochlear implants first came in the 1890s, and since 2000 they’ve been approved by the FDA for use in children who are 12 months and older. There has been research showing that children with cochlear implants from an earlier age receive the benefit of hearing sounds during an important time when they develop speech and language skills. 

Adults who lose their hearing later in life also find benefits with cochlear implants. For example, they can associate implant signals with those sounds that they remember, including speech and visual cues. 

The following provides key information and other important things to know about cochlear implants. 

What Is a Cochlear Implant?

A cochlear implant is an electronic device that’s small and can provide sound to someone who’s severely hard-of-hearing or deaf, and it has an implant that includes an internal portion that goes in the ear as well as another portion that is surgically implanted in the skin. 

There are some key components of a cochlear implant. 

For example, it includes a microphone, which picks up environmental sound. It also includes a speech processor which selects sounds and arranges them. 

There are a transmitter and a receiver which take signals received from the speech processor to then turn them into electric impulses, and there’s an electrode array that takes impulses from the stimulator and sends them to different areas of your auditory nerve. 

How Does a Cochlear Implant Work?

A cochlear implant works differently from a hearing aid. With a cochlear implant, hearing isn’t restored. Instead, it’s a way to provide a representation of the sounds around a person, and it may help with understanding speech as well. While a cochlear implant doesn’t restore hearing, it can help with processing sounds and speech so they can be sent to the brain. 

Someone who might use a cochlear implant would likely be completely are almost entirely deaf in both ears, and find no improvement with hearing aids. If someone can hear well enough through the use of hearing aids, they’re probably not someone who would be an ideal candidate for a cochlear implant. 

Someone using a cochlear implant should be motivated to learn how to use it properly, and it’s important they have managed expectations as to what the implant can and can’t do also. Before someone can receive a cochlear implant, they should have an examination from an ear, nose and throat doctor. 

Someone who may receive a cochlear implant also has to do certain hearing tests, and sometimes preliminary tests can include an MRI or CT scan of both the brain and the ear. 

Specific ways that a cochlear implant might help someone include:

  • Helping someone hear speech without the need for visual clues
  • Assisting with recognizing normal environmental sounds
  • Improved ability to listen in noisy environments
  • The ability to find out where sounds come from

There are fairly limited risks of getting a cochlear implant. One risk is inflammation that can damage any remaining ability to hear, or the membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord can become inflamed. Other possible rare risks of this hearing implant include facial paralysis, balance problems, or infection at the site of the surgery. 

What Happens During the Surgery?

When someone is receiving the implant, they receive general anesthesia. Then, a cut is made behind the ear, and a bone drill is used to open up the bone located behind the ear where the implant is inserted. The electrode array then passes to the inner ear. 

A receiver is placed into an area behind the ear. 

Once the surgery is finished, there are stitches behind the ear, and you can usually feel a small bump behind the ear. 

Then, around one to four weeks after surgery, the outer part of the device is placed. This allows the area where the implant was placed to heal. 

Once the site of the surgery heals and the outer part of the implant is placed, you can start working with a few different specialists because you have to learn how to hear and process sounds. You might, for example, work with an audiologist, a speech therapist, and an ear, nose and throat doctor. 

The results someone gets from a cochlear implant depend on individual factors such as the surgery itself, the condition of the hearing nerve before the surgery and the specific device being used. A cochlear implant is much different than using a hearing aid and is a more in-depth overall process that someone should be aware of before they consider it.