Everything You Need to Know About Hearing Implants
Hearing implants are an alternative to hearing aids. Specialists may recommend an implantation procedure when hearing aids are not working adequately for the patient anymore. An implant may also be the best solution for those who have medical problems with the ear. Recurrent ear infections, for example, can prevent patients from wearing hearing aids.
Getting a hearing implant can be life-changing. Fear about the surgery is a normal reaction and can be outweighed by a good dose of relief, hope, and excitement about the prospect of hearing well again. The media is doing a great job of sharing real life hearing implant stories. They provide publications of exceptional cases of success for many patients. Hearing implants may not be suitable in all cases and individual cases should be discussed with implant audiologist.
In this article, we will outline the facts regarding implantation treatments, along with the different types of hearing implants available.
Who wears them?
Basically, if hearing aids can’t help any longer then a hearing implant might be the solution. Someone with a moderate, severe or profound deafness may benefit from this treatment including adults and children. Implantation in children can be a scary prospect but doing nothing negatively affects the child’s development.
Furthermore, even patients who are diagnosed with single-sided deafness are eligible to have implants too.
How does it work?
There are several types of implants designed for different types of ear and auditory problems. They all have different designs, applications and functions. Hearing aids collect, process and amplify sounds and deliver the sound to the ear canal (the outer ear). From there, sound naturally passes through the middle ear and the inner ear (cochlea), before going to the brain via the auditory nerve. The whole auditory system is part of the process. There are cases where damage to one or more parts of the ear is so severe that bypassing the affected area is a better option.
Hearing implants are surgically inserted and bypass the parts of a person’s ear that have the most damage. It directly stimulates healthier parts further down the chain. Auditory implants also have external parts, worn on or near the ear. Like hearing aids, they collect and process sounds before transmitting them onto the implant.
4 Types of Hearing Implants
1. Middle Ear and Bone Conduction Implants
Most types of middle ear implants assist in the mechanical relay of sound to the inner part of the ear, the cochlea. The surgeon either inserts it into the middle ear or attaches it to the round window between the cochlea and the middle ear.
Like middle ear implants, bone conduction implants can be used to bypass damage in the outer and middle ear. They are implanted into the temporal bone (part of the skull around the ear). They vibrate the bone surrounding the inner ear and stimulate the cochlea directly. In addition, the vibrations travel across the skull and can be picked up by the cochlea in the opposite ear, so these implants can also be used for people who have single-sided deafness.
2. Cochlear Implant (CI)
A cochlear implant consists of two parts:
- The Internal Implant
The internal implant consists of an antenna, an electronics package and an electrode array. Implantation surgery normally takes around 1-2 hours. During a procedure, the surgeon slowly inserts the electrode array into the cochlear’s snail-shell like a cavity. After implanting the electrode array, and other internal parts, the surgeon closes the site with stitches. The implant is thus concealed under the intact skin after surgery.
After a few days of healing period from the surgery, the patient can attend appointments scheduled with the Audiologist to switch on the implant. (We will discuss the Switch on process in a later part of this article.)
- External Part / Speech Processor
The most common external form consists of a speech processor (which is a small computer that looks like a hearing aid), a cable, a coil and a magnet that connects to the internal antenna of the system through the skin. Other instruments have all the external parts housed in a single small component.
3. Electro-Acoustic Stimulation (EAS) Implant
As the name suggests, EAS provides a mix of electrical and acoustic information. The electrical component is provided through the cochlear implant, while the acoustic component is provided through a hearing aid. EAS is recommended for people who develop a significant level of deafness in the high pitches, but can easily hear low pitches, or bass, sounds. An EAS system looks very similar to a cochlear implant, with both internal and external components. The difference between a cochlear implant and an EAS is that the implant only involves the high-pitched region of the cochlea, which has the most damage. The EAS implant leaves low-pitched regions to be amplified with a hearing aid.
4. Auditory Brainstem Implant (ABI)
An ABI is a special implant for rare cases of damage in the auditory nerves through disease or poor development. The implant is an electrode pad which the surgeon inserts into the brainstem during surgery. Its external parts operate in a way similar to cochlear implants. The decision to proceed with an ABI, as well as the surgery, recovery and programming are much more complex than for other types of implants. Therefore, the ABI process involves a much larger team of specialist medical professionals, doctors and Audiologists.
The Switch-On Process
Learning to hear through an implant takes time.
The switch-on refers to the point at which the Audiologist activates the implant for the first time by programming the external parts. This is the first time people hear through their implant. The time between surgery and the switch-on varies from several days to several weeks, depending on the type of implant and the required healing period.
At switch-on, patients often report an unnatural sound from their implant, but this only means that they are not used to the system yet. Over time, the sound gets better and more natural. The process is helped along by consistent use, hearing exercises and regular visits to the audiologist. After the switch-on, patients need weekly appointments for programming, learning, testing and support. The overall length of this process depends on the implant type. Your audiologist will discuss this with you in detail.
It makes sense to fear the things we don’t know. But sometimes it’s easier to address our fear by learning what we’re going up against. When the thing that is causing our fear is something that will, in turn, do us something good, it’s worth the risk.
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Also, if you want to more about adult hearing assessments, then read our article: “What You Ought to Know About a Hearing Test and its Benefits?”