Technologies improve for hearing restoration

July 17, 2006
Two relatively new technologies to restore hearing – cochlear implants and the Baha system - are now available at New Hanover Regional Medical Center and are showing positive results.

Cochlear implants are appropriate for both children and adults who are deaf or severely hard of hearing. The Baha system is appropriate for specific types of hearing loss, including conductive or mixed, as well as single-sided deafness. Both are two-piece devices that each have one piece surgically implanted in the mastoid bone above and behind the ear.

John Mason, M.D., an otolaryngologist who implants both, said that between 28 and 29 million Americans, including half of those older than 70, suffer from hearing loss. Additionally, some 24,000 babies are born each year with some level of hearing loss.

“It’s a real high point in medicine to restore any of the five senses,” Mason said. “It brings such a huge improvement in quality of life and the ability to interact or communicate with the world.”

Traditional hearing aids are electronic devices that fit inside or behind the ear and improve hearing by amplifying sound.

In cochlear implants, an external device attaches to the surgically implanted internal device magnetically through the skin. Sounds are converted to electrical impulses that stimulate the cochlear nerve, which are then translated by the brain.

The internal device in the Baha system is a titanium screw that integrates into the bone as it heals. A small portion of the screw protrudes through the skin into which the external device fits. Sound vibrations are transferred through the skull to the opposite ear and hearing is accomplished.

Both devices require several weeks of healing before hearing begins. Cochlear implants then must be programmed by an audiologist.

“It’s amazing how many everyday sounds people miss,” Mason said. “And it’s heartwarming to see the reactions as people begin hearing sounds they’ve missed.”

To talk to a physician who offers these devices, call VitaLine at 815-5188 for a referral.