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What is a Cochlear Implant?

Much like a hearing aid, a cochlear implant is a small electronic device that helps those with hearing loss. Also like a hearing aid, cochlear implants cannot restore hearing loss, but they can provide a sense of sound to people who are profoundly deaf or have severe hearing loss. Cochlear implants are a bit more complex than hearing aids, in that they are surgically placed under the skin behind the ear (hence the term “implant”).

Who Wears Cochlear Implants?

Cochlear implants are an option for people who cannot be helped with hearing aids or amplifiers. Both children and adults can receive cochlear implants. Some people with profound hearing loss or deafness have sensorineural hearing loss, which means there is damage to the minuscule hair cells in the inner ear, in a part called the cochlea.

Children as young as one year old, who have been born deaf or with severe hearing loss, are eligible for cochlear implants. Children with cochlear implants develop language skills almost as quickly as children with normal hearing, and the implants help them succeed in the classroom and beyond. Adults also benefit from cochlear implants, which helps many people who have lost their hearing over time. Over 324,000 people have received cochlear implants!

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How Do Cochlear Implants Work?

Unlike hearing aids, cochlear implants do not amplify sound. Instead, they channel sound to bypass the damaged parts of the cochlea and directly stimulate the auditory nerve. The implant generates signals that it sends to the auditory nerve, which then passes it onto the brain where they are recognized as sounds.

Cochlear implants do require surgery, and consists of two parts: a processor/microphone piece that sits behind the ear, and a receiver that is implanted under the skin near the ear. While it is noticeable, the implants don’t normally get in the way of everyday life. Users can even swim with their implants!

After the procedure, significant therapy is often needed, in order to get acquainted (or reacquainted) with the sense of hearing. Speech pathologists and audiologists are often involved in this type of therapy.


What are the Differences Between Cochlear Implants and Hearing Aids?

Like we mentioned above, hearing aids amplify sounds for those with hearing loss, while cochlear implants are more complex and work directly with the auditory nerve and the brain. While the processor (the part that sits behind the ear) looks similar to a behind-the-ear hearing aid, it is actually a tiny computer that digitizes sound signals. Hearing aid users often have hearing loss that can be mitigated by increasing the volume of the sounds around them, which are how hearing aids function. Those who need cochlear implants, however, don’t just struggle with the volume of sound—their brains are actually missing bits and pieces of sound signals.

Hearing with a cochlear implant is not like regular hearing or hearing with a hearing aid, but the implants allow people to have conversations, recognize warning signals, and understand environmental sounds. Cochlear implant users have reported that voices have a more robotic sound to them, but they are often able to understand and participate in conversations, both in person and over the telephone.

Do I Need Cochlear Implants?

Unless you are deaf or have profound hearing loss, you should be just fine with regular hearing aids! Consult an audiologist if you aren’t sure. Cochlear implants are amazing technology that allows those with little to no hearing experience sounds, and improves their day to day communications with friends and family. Hearing aids and cochlear implants alike are constantly being improved and we can’t wait to see what the future holds for hearing technology!

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By: Elena McPhillips