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What is the Difference Between Hearing Aids and Cochlear Implants?

Hearing aids are the instrument of choice for the majority of the 26 million Americans with hearing loss, but for those who are deaf or severely hard of hearing, cochlear implants may be a better option.

While hearing aids amplify sound, a cochlear implant transforms sounds into electrical energy that stimulates your auditory nerve. Your hearing health professional can recommend the best treatment option for you; however, cochlear implants are traditionally better suited for individuals with severe to profound hearing loss – especially for those who have already developed their speech and language skills and haven’t had any luck with hearing aids.

Both hearing aids and cochlear implants work best for individuals diagnosed with sensorineural hearing loss, meaning they have damage to the hair cells in the inner ear and/or the nerve pathways from the inner ear to the brain. Sensorineural hearing loss is the most common type of hearing loss in the United States.

A cochlear implant has two parts. The internal receiver/stimulator is surgically implanted directly into your ear while the microphone and magnetic transmitting coil fit externally behind the ear and on the side of the head. The microphone picks up sound, translates it into coded signals and sends it through the transmitting coil to the implant located under the skin. Electrical energy is then sent to the electrodes in the cochlea, which stimulates the auditory nerve and travels to the brain for interpretation.

According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, as of December 2010 approximately 42,600 adults and 28,400 children had received cochlear implants compared to an estimated 12 million Americans who wear hearing aids.

While there are no guarantees a cochlear implant will improve your ability to hear and understand speech, adult hearing often benefits immediately and continue to improve in the first three months after the surgery.  Individuals with cochlear implants also don’t have to worry about acoustic feedback or problems with earmolds and may find it easier to use the telephone, watch television and listen to music.

The disadvantages of cochlear implants include the costs and risks associated with surgery. Users also have less control over the instrument, since half of it is permanently implanted in the ear. The device has to be reprogrammed annually and the batteries don’t last as long as the typical hearing aid. Medicare and some insurance policies cover the cost of the implant and the surgery.

Fortunately, the majority of individuals with mild to moderate hearing loss get along nicely with traditional hearing aids. Although these instruments don’t process sound like cochlear implants, they are less expensive and offer more flexibility. Hearing aids can be manually adjusted, repaired, replaced and removed and come in a variety of shapes, colors, models, technology and price. This variety allows your hearing health professional to fit you with the make and model that fits your lifestyle and your budget.

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