Your Concerns About Cochlear Implants, Answered

By René H. Gifford, Ph.D, CCC-A, and David S. Haynes, M.D., FACS

“If you qualify for a cochlear implant (CI) but do not have one, please indicate reasons you have not pursued.”

This question was one of three dozen on hearing conditions posed in Hearing Health Foundation’s 2017 Reader Survey, which was administered through the pages of this magazine, online, and also with Hearing Loss Association of America, through their magazine and online. More than 2,300 people responded to the survey. Those who responded to the CI question above gave the following answers, and they were able to check off as many as applied. In order of popularity, the responses were: 1) not convinced of improvement, 2) surgery complications, 3) waiting for biological cure, 4) concerns about sound quality, 5) cosmetic, and 6) fear of discomfort.

Although “other” with a fill-in option was offered, age did not appear to be a primary concern. In fact, many older adults with severe to profound hearing loss whose hearing aids are no longer are beneficial have found success with CIs, as demonstrated by Barbara Sinclair (page 20), who received an implant 17 years ago at age 72, and our cover story author Bruce Douglas (page 6), who had implantation surgery at age 91.

Part of the survey’s purpose is to better understand the needs of our community of readers and supporters, and so, as cochlear implant surgeons, we wanted to address these concerns.

Source: University of Illinois Hospital

Source: University of Illinois Hospital

Not convinced of improvement

All CI centers, including ours at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, perform extensive presurgical testing to determine if a CI is the right option for a patient, versus the continued use of hearing aids. The testing, based on data and experience, answers this question with an incredible degree of accuracy. Our goal is to reach a level of hearing that dramatically outperforms the best hearing aid outcomes for a given individual. Expectations are much higher than this, however, and it is extremely rare for a patient who is wearing their implant full-time not to experience much better preoperative hearing performance. The benefit has been so pronounced that Vanderbilt and other CI centers are working to expand implantation criteria so that this technology reaches people with milder forms of hearing loss.

Surgical complications

Cochlear implantation has one of the most favorable risk–benefit ratios of any surgical procedure in the U.S., offering significant communicative benefit while incurring little risk. Our center performs nearly 300 implants per year, and we monitor and track all procedures, outcomes, and complications. As with any operation your surgical team will provide a list of potential complications in order to be comprehensive, but the actual incidence of CI surgery complications ranges from under 1 percent to 3 percent. If any do occur, they are considered minor and temporary, such as postoperative taste disturbances and dizziness. At most CI centers, implantation is completed as an outpatient procedure and generally performed in 1 to 1.5 hours. We recently completed cochlear implantation on a 96-year-old patient who went home on the same day of surgery.

Waiting on a biological cure
The field of hearing restoration through hair cell regeneration—some of which is being conducted by HHF scientists, through the Hearing Restoration Project—is still in its earliest phases. While there have been exciting advances in gene therapy, current technology via cochlear implants can provide people with severe to profound hearing loss immediate access to sound, and all the benefits that this brings. In addition, improved success with CIs is linked to implantation that occurs closer to the onset of hearing loss, as auditory pathways in the brain need to be stimulated or they weaken. Otherwise the resulting permanent changes in the brain’s auditory centers may limit the ability of a patient to hear, even with a perfectly intact cochlea.

Concern about sound quality
Despite CIs being a mechanical device, the voice sound quality has the potential to be no less electronic sounding than that from a telephone, computer, or television. Often the abnormal sound is due to the stimulation of an ear that hasn't heard for many years (or an ear that has never heard). If this occurs, it typically dissipates with continued use of the CI and the stimulation of auditory pathways. Signal processing technology also continues to advance at a rapid rate, allowing for personalized programming for the best hearing outcomes, and—especially with any neural changes with age—programming is important to do at regular intervals.

Cosmetic
The thin internal portion of the CI is designed to sit flush with the skull and is not visible. The visible external components (the battery, sound processor, microphone, and transmitting coil) mostly fit behind the ear, not much larger than a standard behind-the-ear hearing aid. The latest sound processors are self-contained in a single unit about the size of a half dollar coin. These “off-the-ear” processors do not have an over-the-ear component, but rest directly over the magnet that is behind the ear and within the hairline. Eventually we expect that all implanted systems will be compatible with these smaller, off-the-ear processors, and nanotechnology and battery miniaturization will further reduce processor size. (And, the
boom in wearable consumer technology makes visible devices even more mainstream.)

Fear of discomfort
Implantation incisions behind the ear heal quickly, and the drilling of the bone required to place the
implant is a simple mastoidectomy. It is a component of most ear procedures and is not painful. Our center performs over 1,200 mastoidectomies per year across various different ear procedures. Postoperative discomfort is a rare complication and easily managed with over-the-counter medications such as acetaminophen (Tylenol).

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Do You Qualify?
If you have a hearing loss that prevents you from talking on the phone without visual cues (such as needing video calls or caption calling); are unable to understand television programs without closed captioning; and/or are actively avoiding large group gatherings for fear of conversational difficulty, talk to your hearing healthcare professional to see if you may be a CI candidate. CIs are the most successful sensory restoration prostheses to date and have been successfully placed in more than half a million individuals worldwide. The wonders of this technology vastly improve hearing, speech understanding, and overall quality of life.  

René H. Gifford, Ph.D, CCC-A, is a professor in the department of hearing and speech sciences with a joint appointment in the department of otolaryngology at Vanderbilt University, Tennessee. She and HHF medical director David S. Haynes, M.D., FACS, direct the Cochlear Implant Program at the Vanderbilt Bill Wilkerson Center.

This article also appeared in the Fall 2018 issue of Hearing Health. For references, see hhf.org/fall2018-references.

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