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What's it like: To receive cochlear implants

Jaclyn Cosgrove: Cochlear implants differ from hearing aids in that they do not simply amplify sound. Instead, cochlear implants directly stimulate the auditory nerve.
by Jaclyn Cosgrove Modified: January 26, 2014 at 3:00 pm •  Published: January 26, 2014

What is a cochlear implant?

A cochlear implant is a small device that provides a sense of sound to the profoundly deaf or severely hard of hearing. The device has two main parts: an external sound processor and the implant itself.

You can see the external sound processor on the side of someone's ear while they're wearing it. It might look similar to a hearing aid. There's a computer inside that external piece that determines how much stimulation the recipient will need to hear the sound. Meanwhile, the second part, the actual implant, rests under the skin, behind a person's ear.

A cochlear implant is different from a hearing aid. A hearing aid works much like an amplifier, making sounds louder so that it's more likely that the inner ear will respond to speech or environmental sounds.

But sometimes you get to the point where you can't make sounds loud enough with a hearing aid because the hearing loss is so severe — or there's so much damage in the inner ear that even if sounds were louder, it's stimulating a damaged or impaired part of the inner ear. Thus, the signal sent to the auditory nerve would be distorted.

By using a cochlear implant, you're bypassing that damaged part and stimulating the auditory nerve directly. The cochlear implant can restore access to low-pitched and high-pitched sounds, which can improve the clarity of what a person hears.

What's the surgery like?

A surgeon makes a small cut in the crevice where the ear attaches to the head. The surgeon then folds the skin back and places the implantable component of the cochlear implant to the skull. To do this, the surgeon might burrow out part of the skull and then suture down the implant.

A tiny electrode wire is then routed down to the inner ear or cochlea behind the eardrum. The lead wire is inserted into the cochlea, right next to the auditory nerve. Overall, the surgery generally takes about two hours and is typically outpatient.

What are the risks?

As with any surgery, there's a risk that you won't react well to anesthesia. For most people, the risk is low.

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by Jaclyn Cosgrove
Medical and Health Reporter
Jaclyn Cosgrove writes about health, public policy and medicine in Oklahoma, among other topics. She is an Oklahoma State University graduate. Jaclyn grew up in the southeast region of the state and enjoys writing about rural Oklahoma. She is...
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