Can Cochlear implants help treat tinnitus?
Cochlear implants were invented to treat deafness but have successfully been used in the treating of tinnitus.They were first approved for use in 1985. Since then over 150,000 individuals have received cochlear implants worldwide. Studies of cochlear implants and their effect on tinnitus have reported from 60% to 92% of sufferers noticing a reduction in their tinnitus. A small minority noticed an increase.
How do Cochlear Implants work?
A cochlear implant is an electronic device that replaces the functions of the ear. It is similar to a hearing aid in its function but achieves it in a completely different way. A hearing aid amplifies sound so that damaged ears can hear better. A Cochlear implant actually replaces the damaged parts of the ear. They process the sounds and send them directly to the auditory nerves. An implant comes in two parts :external portion that sits behind the ear and a second portion that is surgically placed under the skin.
There are five components to a cochlear implant
A microphone to pick up sounds and voices.
The sounds are then analyzed and processed by the speech processor into data.
A transmitter sends the data to the implanted receiver/stimulator. This converts them into electrical impulses.
These travel down a wire to the electrode array. The array is connected directly to the auditory nerves which then pass the signal onto the brain.
How do cochlear implants help treat tinnitus?
As has been shown in many tinnitus treatment studies, the better you can hear, the less you notice the tinnitus. Implants help in two ways. Firstly they increase how much is heard, this acts to mask the tinnitus and lessen a patients awareness of it.
Secondly it is thought that tinnitus is the brains response to receiving damaged signals from the ear. The brain attempts to repair gaps in the signals. It is these patched gaps which produce the tinnitus. The implants electrical stimulation lessens these gaps as it bypasses the damage in the ear. This helps to stop the brain creating as much tinnitus in the first place.
Pros and cons of cochlear implants
Cochlear Implants Disadvantages:
Surgery: It is a surgical procedure which although has been performed safely over 150000 times still needs to be given serious consideration. As with any surgery there are risks of infection. Cochlear implant recipients are at higher risk for meningitis. It is recommend to be vaccinated before the procedure. There is also a risk of damage to the facial nerves which run near the surgical site. This can lead to muscle weakness or even facial paralysis.
Cost: It can be very expensive for both the procedure and rehabilitation afterwards. Costs are estimated between US$45,000 to US$125,000. Fortunately this covered by most health insurances.
Damages hearing. When the electrode array is surgically implanted it destroys the remaining hearing ability of the ear, rendering the patient completely deaf without the implants. For this reason it is only ever considered for those who already have serious or total hearing loss.
Does not completely restore hearing. The implant cannot restore full normal hearing. Current electrode arrays have 22 sensors compared to the 16000 sensors in a normal ear. Instead, it gives a person a useful representation of sounds in the environment and to help understand speech. Of course technology is always improving and advancing.
It is not an instant cure. After a successful operation there is still rehabilitation to go through. The brain has to learn to understand these new sounds. Speech therapy may be needed.
Benefits of Cochlear Implants
Good possibility of reducing or eliminating tinnitus.
Cost: Although an expensive procedure it is calculated that the procedure can save over $50000 in special needs education for a deaf child.
Communication – Implants allow individuals with profound hearing loss or complete deafness a means of hearing sound. It enables them to communicate fully, appreciate music as well as use a telephone.
Can improved quality of life: Communication with family and friends is improved. The workplace is less stressful.
Allows deaf students to attend mainstream education.
Can make it easier for adults who find learning lips reading or sign language difficult.
Easy to care for. Unlike hearing aids there is no special care or cleaning required.
Safety: Having an improved awareness of their surroundings. This has been especially helpful for patients who are also blind.
Tinnitus and Cochlear Implants
Cochlear implants can help treat and reduce tinnitus. But they are not suitable for all patients. They can only be used by patients who have profound or total hearing loss. Tinnitus is a symptom of many conditions not just hearing loss. Implants would not help a patient who’s tinnitus is caused by high blood pressure. Neither is it useful for patients who’s auditory nerves are damaged. Surgery should always be a last consideration when looking at tinnitus treatments. Thankfully there is a wide range of treatments to investigate before taking such a drastic measure.
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