A cochlear implant is an electronic medical device that stimulates the inner ear for those with significant hearing loss to restore some measurable hearing. The FDA estimated in 2012 that 324,200 individuals had received implants worldwide. A surgeon inserts an electronic probe through the skull into the inner ear. Once implanted, an audiologist attaches an external sound processor worn behind-the-ear. Only those with significant hearing losses who show little to no benefit with hearing aids are candidates for the implant. These restrictions are necessary because not everybody responds well to the procedure. However, the implants are of significant importance to infants and young children who are learning speech and language.
History of the Cochlear Implant
In 1800, Italian physicist Alessandro Volta experimented on himself inserting metal rods in his ear canal and stimulating them with electricity. He reported that this created an auditory sensation. In the mid-1950s, experimentation with electrical stimulation to the auditory nerve increased. By 1972, researchers developed the first implantable cochlear implant. By the mid 1980’s, over a thousand hearing impaired individuals, primarily veterans and children, were surgically fitted with the implants.
The first cochlear implants experienced limited successes. Most could hearing environmental sounds but not understand speech. Then, in 1984, Cochlear Corporation developed an improved design that was initially approved by the FDA for adults, age 18 and older. Just 5 years later, FDA extended the age range down to 2 years and older. By the year 2000, the FDA approved certain implants for use in children as young as 12 months of age.
What is the process for getting an implant?
An ENT physician or an audiologist can provide a referral to a cochlear implant center. At the center, the candidate will undergo a series of hearing, medical and counseling evaluations to determine candidacy. Four to six weeks following surgical implantation, the implant team will activate the external sound processor. Finally, several follow-up visits with the audiologist will complete the implant process.
Insurance coverage for cochlear implants
Medicare, Medicaid and many private and commercial insurers often cover the cost of cochlear implants. However, coverage can vary widely, and patients may still be responsible for significant out-of-pocket costs.