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A cochlear implant allows a deaf patient to hear. Hearing through an implant may sound different from normal hearing, but it allows many people to communicate fully with oral communication in person and over the phone. One in 1000 children are born with a severe to profound sensorineural hearing loss. Hearing loss of that magnitude occurring so early in life has a significant deleterious effect on speech and language development. Because a child learns much about his/her world by listening, a cochlear implant can provide significant improvements in a child's ability to learn to communicate.
A cochlear implant is also very beneficial for adults who have already learned to communicate, but are now unable to hear. Hearing loss isolates one from society in a way that is much different than other disabilities. Because you can't hear what others are saying, you can't communicate back with them. Thus, interpersonal relationships with others who hear normally become more difficult to develop and sustain. If a hearing aid is not provide useful benefit in this situation, a cochlear implant often can, bringing a patient back into a world of communication.
What are the risks of a cochlear implant?
Although surgical implantation is almost always safe, complications are a risk factor, just as with any kind of surgery. Inserting a cochlear implant destroys any residual hearing in the operated ear. Thus, one can not turn back. The standard surgical risks of a cochlear implant are all quite rare. These include: bleeding, infection, device malfunction, facial nerve weakness, ringing in the ear, dizziness, and poor hearing result.
One long-term risk of a cochlear implant is meningitis (infection of the fluid around the brain). This is very rare and there have only been 91 cases out of 60,000 patients with cochlear implants. However, 17 of these patients have died. Those patients who had meningitis tended to have several predisposing risk factors including congenital inner ear malformations, previous history of meningitis, immune system dysfunction, less than 5 years of age, and a history of recurrent ear infections. Because the cochlear implant runs between the middle and inner ear, bacteria within the middle ear may tract along the implant into the normally sterile inner ear. The inner ear has connections with the brain, through which the infection may spread. Currently, all patients who receive a cochlear implant need to be immunized against the common bacteria that cause meningitis.
An additional consideration is learning to interpret the sounds created by an implant. This process takes time and practice. Speech-language pathologists and audiologists are the professionals frequently involved in this learning process. Not everyone performs at the same level with a cochlear implant. Prior to implantation, all of these factors need to be discussed.