Hearing Impairment and Cochlear Implant Surgery

Finding hearing impairment solutions means more than enhancing communication — it also helps maintain relationships and quality of life.

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We may not always realise it, but the everyday sounds of life — a favourite song, the rustle of leaves or the giggle of a child — all play an important role in adding to the joy of life. When hearing loss happens, it can have a significant negative impact. Luckily, there are solutions to help overcome hearing impairment.

Impact of Hearing Loss

“The impact of hearing loss is hugely underestimated because it is a disability that cannot be seen,” said Dr Rebecca Heywood, Consultant, ENT (Head and Neck Surgery), JurongHealth.

“For a majority of people, hearing loss happens very gradually so they do not notice that they are no longer able to hear everyday sounds.”

Untreated hearing loss has far-reaching consequences. Apart from affecting the ability to hear traffic, alarms or conversation, it can lead to social isolation, negatively affect relationships and cause loss of income, anxiety and even depression. 

“Even more worrying,” said Dr Heywood, is that “untreated hearing loss has recently been linked to earlier and more rapid cognitive decline and is associated with dementia.”

Normal Versus Impaired Hearing 
Our ability to hear is based on a finely tuned system of highly sensitive receivers and transmitters in the ear. Sound waves travel down the external ear canal, causing vibrations in the eardrum and small hearing bones in the middle ear. The sound is then transmitted to the fluid and delicate hair cells of the inner ear (cochlear). The sound waves are turned into electrical signals that travel up the hearing nerve to the brain where they are perceived as sound.

Hearing loss occurs when there is a problem with any part of the ear’s receiving and transmitting system. It can be partial or complete and acquired at any stage in life.

To find out how you can gauge your hearing level through a hearing test, click here.

Types of Hearing Loss

Conductive hearing loss in the external or middle ear can be caused by ear wax, a hole in the eardrum, inflammation/infection or the stiffening of the middle ear bones. You can learn about ear infections in more detail here.

Sensorineural hearing loss in the inner ear or hearing nerve may be due to the effects of ageing, exposure to loud noise, Meniere’s disease or some medications and infections.

Mixed hearing loss is the loss of hearing due to a combination of problems in the external, middle and inner ear.

Approximately three percent of Singaporean adults between the ages of 18 and 69 have disabling hearing loss, while one in two aged above 65 has some degree of hearing loss, Dr Heywood pointed out.

“This is a huge number of people who are missing out on important everyday experiences. Hearing aids could treat the majority of these cases as they are simple to use and the benefits are enormous.”

Modern implants are so sensitive that they can adapt automatically to the listening environment and even have wireless connectivity — so you can stream sounds from a smartphone or TV directly to your implant.

Hearing Aids and Implants

You don’t have to live with hearing loss. In the early stages of hearing loss, hearing aids can help people to hear better with their remaining natural hearing by amplifying sound.

When hearing loss is more serious or when hearing is entirely impaired, a hearing or cochlear implant is a more effective option.

A cochlear implant is an electronic device that is surgically implanted. It replaces the hearing function of the damaged inner ear by turning sound into electrical impulses that are sent directly to the hearing nerve.

Cochlear Impant Surgery

Cochlear implant surgery is very safe and takes about two hours, Dr Heywood says. Most patients can go home the next day. Cost need not be an issue either, she added. “Subsidies and extra financial assistance are available for implants in Singapore based on means-testing protocols.”

It is never “too late” to get a cochlear implant, nor is age-related hearing loss just something to put up with, said Dr Heywood. “The oldest person I have seen got her cochlear implant when she was 94 years old! Why live the rest of your life unable to hear your husband or wife, grandchildren or friends, when you could be sharing these precious moments with your loved ones? Receiving a cochlear implant can be life-changing.”

She added, “After their implant, patients often tell me that they just didn’t realise how much they were missing out on!”

Original article titled "Hear for a Sound Life", written by Bella Lim in consultation with Dr Rebecca Heywood, was first published in OneHealth Magazine, 2016, Issue 8.



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