For some individuals with severe hearing loss, it’s life-changing. When the patient is a child, one of the decisions parents must make is whether their youngster should have one or two cochlear implants.
What is it?
A cochlear implant is a small yet very complex electronic device. It’s designed both for individuals who are profoundly deaf and those with severe hearing loss.
The device consists of several parts, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders. A microphone picks up sound from the environment. The speech processor picks out and arranges sounds the microphone catches. A transmitter and receiver/stimulator unit receives signals from the speech processor, then converts them into electric impulses. The electrode array gathers the impulses from the stimulator, then passes them along to various parts of the auditory nerve.
Nearly 200,000 individuals in the United States have received an implant.
While a hearing aid merely amplifies sounds, a cochlear implant skirts damaged parts of the ear and stimulates the auditory nerve directly. This nerve carries the implant’s signals to the brain, where they’re recognized as sound.
Installing a cochlear implant is a surgical procedure. It performs the job that absent or damaged nerve cells should be doing and can be programmed to the particular needs of an individual with a hearing loss.
Patients who derive the most benefits from implants are those who lost most or all of their hearing later in life. Many are able to understand speech solely by using the implant and don’t require visual signals like lip reading or sign language.
Implants help young children learn to speak, understand language, and gain social skills. Most youngsters who get them are between ages two and six. For one type of implant, the age of eligibility is only 12 months.
The most basic goal is to help a deaf or hearing-impaired person understand speech. Many with implants are able to carry on conversations in person or over a telephone.
Some patients are disappointed to learn that a cochlear implant doesn’t restore normal hearing. What it can do is provide a useful representation of sounds so that the deaf individual can better understand speech.
Using an implant requires more the than surgery to insert it. It requires significant post-implantation therapy to learn or even relearn hearing. Over time, patients develop varying levels of success with the technology. Learning to interpret the sounds generated by the implant takes time and considerable practice.
A cochlear implant can be expensive, depending on whether or not the patient’s health insurance covers any of the cost of getting it. WebMD reports that while the rate is low, implants still have a risk of complications.
Among them are the typical risks of surgery, such as infection and the effects of general anesthesia. If the implant moves out of the correct spot, the patient might require a second surgery. There is always a possibility that the device won’t work correctly. While seldom permanent, twitching of the face or being unable to move facial muscles can occur.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) found a link between children with cochlear implants and bacterial meningitis. However, experts have made no recommendation on removing any implants because it’s unclear whether such a move would lower the risk of contracting the illness.