How Does a Cochlear Implant Work?

by | Jan 9, 2023 | News

Hearing impairments can come on suddenly or with gradual loss over time. Either way, they can significantly impact your quality of life. While you may feel angry, anxious or shame over these impairments, there are solutions that can restore some functionality. In this short guide, you’ll learn about sensorineural hearing loss plus how a cochlear implant could help restore your hearing.

Types of Hearing Impairments

Most hearing impairments fall into three distinct categories: conductive, sensorineural and mixed. Conductive hearing loss occurs when something obstructs sound vibrations from reaching the inner ear.  Sensorineural hearing loss encompasses cochlear issues and other inner ear impairments. Excessive loud noise can also damage hair cells faster than they can be rejuvenated. Mixed hearing loss results from both conductive and sensorineural problems. 

The Cochlea and Its Function

The cochlea is one of many structures inside the human ear that enables humans to hear sound. Located inside the inner ear, this spiral-shaped organ helps transmit sound to the brain by turning vibrations into neurological impulses.

Sound vibrations enter the inner ear through the oval window, a connective tissue membrane that links the stapes bone to the cochlea. Fluid inside the cochlea shifts in response to the vibrations. Cochlear fluid movement activates tiny hair cells inside the ear, activating more than 25,000 nerve endings. Electrical impulses from these nerve endings travel to the brain through the auditory nerve. 

Cochlear Hearing Impairments

The cochlea is a sophisticated and delicate organ. While it’s normally shielded by the ear canal and surrounding structures, it can fail to function for several reasons:

  • Damage from excessive loud noise
  • Illnesses that cause high fevers, such as meningitis and mumps
  • Congenital abnormalities including a smaller, missing, or incompletely formed cochlea
  • Medications such as Viagra and certain chemotherapy drugs

How Cochlear Implants Work

Cochlear implants are possible solutions for people with certain hearing impairments. They’re different from hearing aids, which take existing sound and make it louder. In contrast, an implant circumvents damaged parts of the inner hear to help sound signals reach the auditory nerve. 

Your cochlear implant consists of three parts: a sound processor, a receiver and inner ear electrodes. Fitted just behind the ear, the sound processor picks up sound waves and transmits them to a receiver that’s inserted under the skin. The receiver then passes those signals to the electrodes implanted inside the cochlea. Those signals can then activate the auditory nerve, transmitting them up to the brain to be interpreted into sounds. 

How Cochlear Implants Can Help

The type of hearing loss you have dictates the kind of solutions that could work for you. Some people with hearing loss may be ideal candidates for the procedure. Those with inner ear anomalies can benefit, as well as individuals who struggle to understand speech even with hearing aids. Children with severe hearing impairments that remain unremedied by traditional hearing aids could also experience signficant improvements with cochlear implants early in life. 

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