Cochlear Implants—Not Just for Children

by Mark B. Van Deusen, M.D.

Many people have seen the heart-warming videos of infants hearing for the first time as a result of a cochlear implant. What not everyone realizes is that cochlear implants are also placed in adults. In infants, implants are typically performed for congenital sensorineural hearing loss, meaning that the child is born with an inability to hear. In adults, cochlear implants are performed for acquired sensorineural hearing loss, which can occur from noise exposure, autoimmune disease, infections, or as part of the normal aging process.

Sensorineural hearing loss is typically due to the loss of small hair cells located in the cochlea in the inner ear. When sound waves hit the eardrum, they are amplified and transmitted to the fluid in the cochlea by the hearing bones. The fluid wave then bends small hair cells within the cochlea. These hair cells are responsible for converting sound energy to electrical energy, which is then carried by the nerves of hearing to the brain. Initially, hearing loss can be improved with hearing aids. If hearing further declines, hearing aids are no longer beneficial, particularly when word understanding becomes more difficult. Simply increasing the amplification of sounds does not always improve the ability to understandthe words. In these patients, a cochlear implant evaluation is the next step in hearing rehabilitation.

If a patient meets cochlear implant criteria, the procedure is discussed between the patient and implant surgeon. Surgery is performed as an outpatient and takes approximately one to two hours. During the procedure, a small electrode is placed inside the cochlea from behind the ear, where it can directly stimulate the nerves of hearing. When the implant is activated 3-4 weeks later, sounds are sent to the implant via a magnetized external sound processor. Patients then work with the audiologist for individualized programming and rehabilitation.

If you or a loved one is suffering from hearing loss and is no longer benefiting from hearing aids, audiologist Dr. Gerry Drumheller and physician Dr. Latif Dharamsi at Northwest ENT and Allergy are trained in cochlear implant evaluations. Drs. Dharamsi and Drumheller, along with myself, are part of the only cochlear implant team in Cherokee and Cobb counties. We are able to evaluate and treat all causes and severities of hearing loss, so patients can feel confident that all options are being explored to improve their hearing.