Cochlear Implant Program

A cochlear implant is an electrical device that directly stimulates the hearing nerve to restore hearing. At Virginia Mason, we help patients and their families improve their quality of life by managing severe hearing loss with cochlear implants.

Our cochlear implant program was the first of its kind in the greater Seattle area. We continue to be one of the busiest clinics on the West Coast, and serve patients from Washington, Alaska, Idaho, Montana and Oregon.

Virginia Mason was also one of the first to offer a cochlear implant that allows patients to get an MRI without having to surgically remove the implant magnet first. The new HiRes™ Ultra 3 device can rotate to avoid the strong magnetic field of an MRI machine.

Cochlear Implant Program Goals and Outcomes
Candidates for Cochlear Implants
Cochlear Implant Surgery
What to Expect After Cochlear Implant Surgery
Additional Comprehensive Resources

Cochlear Implant Program Goals and Outcomes

At the Listen for Life Center, our goals are to:

  • Educate each patient and family before surgery
  • Provide the best possible surgical experience
  • Provide lifelong care and support after surgery

Many of our pediatric cochlear implant recipients are able to:

  • Develop spoken language
  • Perform at grade-appropriate levels for both expressive and receptive language
  • Function and excel in mainstream education environments

Many of our adult cochlear implant recipients are able to:

  • Reconnect with family and loved ones
  • Perform at exceptionally high levels in the work force
  • Avoid social isolation, depression and loneliness
  • Enjoy music and talk on the telephone

We understand that each patient has individual and specialized needs, and we listen carefully to what his/her goals are as well.

Candidates for Cochlear Implants

Our cochlear implant patients are either born deaf, or have lost hearing over time and no longer benefit from traditional hearing aids or other amplification devices.

Our patients typically have moderate to profound hearing loss in both ears. (Under certain circumstances, exceptions are made for people with hearing loss in one ear.)

Before an implant is scheduled, candidates are usually asked to wear “best-fit” hearing aids for a trial period to see if there is any possible benefit to wearing them.

The evaluation process includes:

  • Meeting with the surgeon to ensure there are no other medical conditions that would make surgery unsafe or unsuccessful
  • Audiometric testing to determine the ability to hear various sound frequencies
  • CT or MRI studies to look at the anatomy of the middle and inner ear
  • Speech performance evaluations
  • Immunizations review according to CDC guidelines
  • A discussion with each patient (or the parents of children) to determine individual needs and expectations

A team of specialists, including an audiologist and a neurotologist performs these evaluations. Patients with certain other medical conditions are also evaluated by a neurologist, cardiologist or internist, as appropriate.

With children, a speech language pathologist or auditory verbal therapist are often part of the team. Cochlear implants can be installed in children as young as 12 months, and – in certain cases – even earlier. The surgeon will discuss what is possible and appropriate for every child.

For patients who qualify, research shows there are significant benefits to having cochlear implants done for both ears instead of just one. These options are discussed with each patient.

Cochlear Implant Surgery

At Virginia Mason, cochlear implant surgeries are performed by our two board-certified neurotologists in the Listen for Life Center.

Cochlear implant surgery is performed under general anesthesia, and typically lasts less than 90 minutes.  Patients usually go home the same day, though occasionally some are kept overnight for observation.

The surgery involves:

image of cochlear implant incision
  • Making a small incision behind the ear
  • Drilling the bone behind the ear (mastoid bone to gain access to the middle ear and cochlea)
  • Placing an electrode into the cochlea – bypassing the damaged hearing nerves
  • Securing the receiver-stimulator (the “hearing computer”) to the skull, beneath the skin
  • Taking an X-ray to confirm correct placement of the device
image of cochlear implant placement

With children and some adults, an audiologist will also do intraoperative testing of the device.

Symptoms After Surgery

After surgery, some patients experience mild pain at the incision site or temporary dizziness. These symptoms usually last less than one week.

Other post-operative symptoms can include:

  • Numbness of the ear lobe
  • Temporary changes in taste
  • Ringing in the ear or worsening of ringing present before surgery
  • Loss of the remaining hearing in the surgical ear

These symptoms are common after cochlear implant surgery, but are usually temporary.

Hearing After the Implant

A cochlear implant is usually activated about one week after surgery. Immediate success is rare. It typically takes months to learn to use the cochlear implant and for sounds to seem normal.

Our patients have many sessions with the audiologist over the first several months to help make the sound from the implant more comfortable and audible.

Counseling and training are ongoing, and many patients also benefit from formal auditory-verbal therapy following surgery.

Additional Comprehensive Resources

Comprehensive information is also available in the Listen for Life Center’s booklet on cochlear implants.

Our cochlear implant program offers the most current technology available from all three FDA-approved manufacturers: Advanced Bionics, MedEl Corporation and Cochlear.