In the U.S., almost one percent of Americans have hearing loss so severe that conventional hearing aids only provide limited benefit. But thanks to advancements in technology, a new device known as a cochlear implant can now provide significant benefit for people who suffer from profound hearing loss.

What is a cochlear implant?

A cochlear implant partially restores hearing for people with hearing loss or damage to their inner ear. A cochlear implant is not the same thing as a hearing aid. A hearing aid’s function is to amplify sound. This type of hearing implant actually transmits impulses to your auditory nerve, which then carries those signals to your brain — just like a working inner ear would do.

How does a cochlear implant work?

In-ear hearing aids do not help everyone with hearing loss. A cochlear ear implant is designed to treat sensorineural hearing loss, which means there is damage in your inner ear. When you have damaged hair cells in your inner ear, this means hair cells cannot send sounds to your auditory nerve. Cochlear implants bypass these damaged portions of the ear and send the sound directly to the nerve.

Part of the cochlear implant is worn on the outside of your ear. This device, which still looks like a hearing aid, is worn behind your ear and has a microphone that picks up sounds. Under the skin behind your ear, a receiver sends signals to electrodes in your inner ear, known as the cochlea. This is how the cochlear implant transmits auditory sensory information to your brain.

When do you need a cochlear implant?

Typically, people who are deaf or severely hard-of-hearing are candidates for cochlear implants.

Cochlear ear implants might work for adults who:

  • Have severe or profound hearing loss in both ears
  • Traditional hearing aids have not helped improve their hearing
  • Started to talk before they lost their hearing
  • Want to improve their listening, speaking and speech

What happens during and after cochlear implant surgery?

During the cochlear implant procedure, an ENT surgeon with specialized training known as a neurotologist will implant the receiver and electrodes in the ear. After the ear implant surgery, some patients can leave the hospital that same day, while some patients might need to stay overnight. The implants are not turned on right away. Patients need time to heal before the cochlear implants are turned on.

After cochlear implant surgery, patients return to the hospital or clinic to have the external parts of the implant programmed for use. Patients also have to learn how to use these ear implants for hearing loss. This treatment is called audiologic rehabilitation, in which those with cochlear implants learn how to figure out what sounds they are hearing and what they mean. They also learn listening, speaking and speech reading skills.