Topic Overview

What is a cochlear implant?

A cochlear implant is
a small electronic device that can help “make” sound if you have a certain type of severe hearing loss in both ears. The implant does the job of the damaged or absent nerve
cells that in a normal ear make it possible to hear. Cochlear implants can be
programmed according to your specific needs and degree of
hearing loss.

Cochlear implants have been shown to
improve a person’s ability to understand speech and speak clearly. Unlike
hearing aids, cochlear implants do not make sounds louder but improve how well
you hear sound.

How does a cochlear implant work?

A cochlear
implant consists of a:

  • Microphone worn behind the ear, to pick up
  • Speech processor worn on the body. Some types may be worn
    behind the ear.
  • Small device placed under the skin near the ear,
    with electrodes placed in the
    cochlea. This is the cochlear implant.

The microphone picks up sound and sends it to the speech
processor, which changes the sound to information the cochlear implant can
understand. The implant then tells the nerves in the ear to send a message to
the brain. The message is understood as sound.

How do I best benefit from a cochlear implant?

Speech therapy will help you make the most of your cochlear implant. Training
in listening, language, and speech-reading skills (paying attention to people’s
gestures, facial expressions, posture, and tone of voice) also help you.

Do cochlear implants have any complications?

Cochlear implants have a low rate of complications, which may

  • Risks of surgery, such as infection and
    medicine that numbs your senses during surgery (general anesthesia).
  • The implant moving out of its proper location.
    You may need a second surgery to relocate the implant.
  • The implant
    not working. It may not work because it was made incorrectly or because of an
    injury to or problem within the ear.
  • Twitching of the face (such as
    a tic) or not being able to move muscles in the face. This is uncommon and
    rarely permanent.

meningitis occurs more often in
children with cochlear implants than in children the same age who do not have
implants. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention along with the Food and Drug Administration recommend the following:

  • Your child should have all required vaccinations for his or her age at least 2 weeks before cochlear implant surgery. After surgery, children need to be up to date with all vaccinations.
  • Watch for signs of meningitis. These include high
    fever, headache, stiff neck, feeling sick to the stomach or vomiting,
    difficulty looking into bright lights, and sleepiness or confusion. A young
    child or infant might be sleepy, cranky, or eat less. If you see any of these
    signs, contact your doctor.
  • Recognize the signs of an ear
    infection, including ear pain, fever, and eating less. If you see any of these
    signs, contact your doctor.

It is possible that a cochlear implant can be affected by a
magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan. This could
cause the implant to stop working. Before you have an MRI, make sure you tell
your doctor you have a cochlear implant.

Related Information


Other Works Consulted

  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2010). Risk of bacterial meningitis in children with cochlear implants. Available online:
  • Gluth MB, et al. (2012). Cochlear implants. In AK Lalwani, ed., Current Diagnosis and Treatment in Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery, 3rd ed., pp. 850-860. New York: McGraw-Hill.
  • U.S. Food and Drug Administration (2006). FDA public health notification: Continued risk of bacterial meningitis in children with cochlear implants with a positioner beyond twenty-four months post-implantation. Available online:


ByHealthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer William H. Blahd, Jr., MD, FACEP – Emergency Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer Charles M. Myer, III, MD – Otolaryngology

Current as ofMay 4, 2017