Hearing Matters

The Differences Between Cochlear Implants and Hearing Aids

Cochlear Implants Versus Hearing Aids

There is always more than one way to tackle a problem. The trick is figuring out which way is best. And when it comes to treating your hearing loss, you certainly have options: hearing aids are always becoming more advanced, and other technologies like cochlear implants are changing lives as they improve. But which one is right for you? Every person experiences hearing loss differently. What works for one person might not be the right option for another. So let’s answer one of the questions we’re hearing more and more these days: What are the differences between cochlear implants and hearing aids?

What do hearing aids actually do?

Hearing aids are devices that do just that: assist your sense of hearing. What they don’t do is replace it.

But what does that mean in practice? Think of hearing aids as glasses for your ears. Glasses correct vision and help you see clearly but they can’t fix blindness. Hearing aids can correct for hearing loss in one or both ears but, like glasses, they work up to a point.

Your sense of hearing depends on tiny hair cells in your inner ear. If you experience one of the three main types of hearing loss, the functionality of these hair cells can be impaired. That’s where hearing aids come in: they can make up for that loss of functionality by magnifying certain sounds and reducing ambient noise.

Also like glasses, hearing aids are removable. You’ll occasionally need to take them out to charge or clean, although you should wear them as much as possible. Going without your hearing aids can actually cause your hearing to get worse.

Hearing aids come in many shapes and sizes, each of which can affect an individual differently. Some have components which rest over or behind the ear, while others fit inside the ear canal. No matter it’s appearance, the audio function of a hearing aid is made up of three main parts:

  • The microphone picks up sound from the environment.
  • The amplifier increases the volume of the sound and adjusts volume levels so you can hear what’s important.
  • The receiver converts the signals from the amplifier back into sound and sends it into the ear.

What is a cochlear implant?

If hearing aids are glasses, cochlear implants are LASIK. While hearing aids can nearly restore the ability to hear, they aren’t perfect for everyone. Developed by an engineer working on NASA’s Space Shuttle program, cochlear implants are a more extreme option that can treat people with severe to profound hearing loss.

Cochlear implants are extremely useful to people with high levels of hearing loss but they aren’t a perfect solution. Hearing aids can go a long way towards restoring the ability to hear. Cochlear implants, on the other hand, only simulate the ability to hear.

As the name suggests, a cochlear implant must be directly implanted through surgery. Part of the device is removable but some of it remains inside the body permanently. Unlike hearing aids, which help a damaged ear pick up sound, the implant simply bypasses damaged portions of the ear. It directly stimulates the auditory nerve which sends sound signals to the brain.

A cochlear implant is made up of several parts. Some are similar to those used in hearing aids but others are unique to implants:

  • The microphone picks up sound from the environment.
  • The speech processor arranges the sound picked up by the microphone.
  • The transmitter, receiver, and stimulator receive the signals from the microphone and speech processor and convert them into electrical impulses.
  • The electrode array sends those impulses to different regions of the auditory nerve depending on the sound coming in.

A person with a cochlear implant doesn’t simply regain the ability to hear. Hearing through the implant is different from normal hearing. Learning how to use the implant and recognize sound takes time and therapy, but it can allow that person to recognize warning signals and alarms, understand speech, and make sense of sound in the environment around them.

Which option is best for me?

On the surface, it seems as though hearing aids and cochlear implants do the same thing: treat hearing loss. But there are major function differences between cochlear implants and hearing aids. The option that is best for you depends entirely on your hearing loss situation.

First, let’s look at how hearing loss is measured. Audiologists use four levels to describe hearing loss: Mild, Moderate, Severe, and Profound. At the Mild level, you might only have trouble with softer speech sounds, but at the Profound level you might not be able to hear any speech sounds at all.

Most instances of hearing loss, especially mild to moderate cases, can be treated with hearing aids. That’s obvious when you look at the numbers: about 12 million Americans wearing hearing aids. By contrast, only around 50,000 people in the United States have cochlear implants. These are best for people with severe or profound hearing loss, particularly when that hearing loss poses a risk to their health or safety.

If you’re wondering if hearing aids or cochlear implants are right for you, the best person to talk to is an audiologist. They can help you understand what kind of hearing loss you’re experiencing and why, then help you find the right options to treat it. Both hearing aids and cochlear implants are specialized pieces of equipment that are equipped for a specific individual’s hearing needs. Before you make a decision, talk to the experts!

Want to learn more about hearing loss treatment and find out if hearing aids or cochlear implants can help you? Schedule an appointment with us today!