The inner ear or cochlea is a tiny shell-shaped cavity located between your ears that is responsible for processing sound waves and transmitting them to your brain. Cochlear implants are hearing aids that are placed within a poorly functioning cochlea in order to improve your hearing.

While ordinary hearing aids simply amplify sound waves so that you can hear better, a cochlear implant receives sound signals and then converts them into electrical signals. Because cochlear implants don’t need your inner ear to work properly in order to transmit sound waves to your brain, they are most common in people who are profoundly deaf or severely hard of hearing.

Cochlear implants consist of two parts:

  • The first part, called a receiver, sits in the bone just behind your ear and receives sound signals that it then converts into electrical signals.
  • The second part, called an electrode array, is placed in your inner ear and transmits these electric signals to your auditory nerve so that your brain can process them.

Having a cochlear implant fitted – what to expect

The operation to fit a cochlear implant takes between two and five hours and is performed under general anaesthetic.
The operation involves your surgeon making an incision in the back of your head where they will then create a small bed within the mastoid bone behind your ear that will hold the receiver. Next, your surgeon will place the electrode array inside your inner ear.

Your surgeon will test the receiver and electrode array to check that they are working correctly before securing the receiver to your skull and then closing the incision using dissolvable stitches.

Recovering from the operation

When you come out of surgery, you’ll have a pack inside your ear to prevent germs from getting into your ear canal, as well as a large bandage around your ear. Because the operation to fit a cochlear implant is complex and requires several hours in the operating theatre, you’ll need to stay the night in hospital once you’ve woken up after surgery. The bandage around your head will need to be changed after about two days and the pack in your ear will need to be removed by your doctor or surgeon about a week after the operation.

Side effects of having a cochlear implant

A common side effect of having a cochlear implant is nausea as a result of the anaesthetic. Because the inner ear is responsible for balance, you may feel dizzy and you may also experience tinnitus. These side effects are temporary and should subside within a week of the operation.