What is a cochlear implant?

A cochlear implant is a small electronic device that stimulates the cochlear nerve (nerve for hearing). It has two parts. One part sits behind the ear. It picks up sounds with a microphone, processes the sound, and transmits it to the second part of the implant. The second part is implanted in the inner ear during a surgery. A thin wire and small electrodes leads to the cochlea, which is part of the inner ear. The wire sends signals to the auditory nerve, the nerve that sends sound impulses to the brain. A cochlear implant helps give a person a sense of sounds. It doesn't restore hearing to normal, but it can help a person understand speech and noises in the environment.

Why might I need a cochlear implant surgery?

If your hearing hasn’t improved after using a hearing aid for at least 6 months, you may be a candidate for cochlear implant surgery. The indications for implants has changed.  We now implant patients with significantly good hearing in the low frequencies.  In fact, some patients now wear both the implant and hearing aid for added value to the hearing experience.  How cochlear implants help varies from person to person. Some people can hear many sounds, but some people will have no change in hearing. A person may be able to:

  • Perceive different sounds, such as footsteps, a door closing, a phone ringing
  • Understand speech without lip reading, or be helped with lip reading
  • Understand voices over the phone
  • Watch TV
  • Hear music

Important facts to understand when considering a cochlear implant:

  •  A cochlear implant requires some training and therapy after surgery. During this time, you will learn how to care for the implant. You will also have aural (hearing) rehabilitation to assist with coping with hearing loss. This will help to improve the use of the implant. The duration of aural rehab will depend on your age and your hearing before surgery.
  • Cochlear implants do not restore hearing to normal. And in some people, they may not help with hearing at all.
  • You may lose the rest of your natural hearing in the ear where the implant is placed.
  • You may need to use new or recharged batteries every day.
  • The implant may irritate your skin. In some cases, it may need to be removed.
  • An implant can set off security systems, such as metal detectors. Implants may be affected by cell phones and radio transmitters. They must be turned off during takeoff and landing in an airplane.
  • You may not be able to have certain medical tests or treatments. These include magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), and ionic radiation therapy.
  • The implant can be damaged during an accident or while playing sports. Or, the implant can fail. Repairing the implant or replacing a damaged part may be expensive. In some cases, a new surgery may be needed to replace the implant.

What are the risks of cochlear implant surgery?

Although rare, the risks of cochlear implant surgery include:

  • Bleeding
  • Swelling
  • Infection in the area of the implant
  • Ringing in the ears (tinnitus)
  • Dizziness or vertigo
  • Numbness around the ear
  • Changes in taste
  • Leakage of the fluid in the cochlea
  • Leakage of spinal fluid
  • Injury to the facial nerve, which can cause movement problems in the face
  • Infection of the membrane that covers the brain (meningitis)
  • Chronic inflammation around the implant (reparative granuloma)
  • Risks of general anesthesia
  • Need to have the implant removed because of an infection

There may be other risks, depending upon your medical condition. Be sure to discuss any concerns with your healthcare provider before the procedure.  

How should I prepare for cochlear implant surgery?

A cochlear implant is not right for everyone. To find out if an implant is right for you:

  • You will need to meet with and be assessed by Dr. Weber and his team.
  • You will have hearing tests and physical exams.
  • You may have imaging tests (CT and/or MRI) to look at the structure of your ear.
  • Your healthcare provider may require other tests or preparation, depending on your medical condition.