Cochlear Implants

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Cochlear implants are electronic medical devices that can help people with severe hearing loss. Cochlear implants don’t make sounds louder the way hearing aids do. Instead, these devices convert sound into electrical impulses. The electrical impulses are used to stimulate hearing nerves in the hearing organ, also known as the cochlea. A surgery is necessary to place one portion of the cochlear implant into the hearing organ.

Cochlear implants allow most patients to hear warning sounds or other sounds in the environment and understand speech better. With time and training, some people can even hear on the phone.

At UVA, our expert team of surgeons and audiologists have been working with cochlear implant devices since they were first available in the 1980s.

About the Cochlear Implants 

Cochlear implants are made up of two components:

  • One component that is worn on the side of the head, and has:
    • A microphone to collect sounds
    • A speech processor – a tiny computer that analyzes sounds collected by the microphone
    • A transmitter that changes the analyzed sounds into electrical impulses
  • The second component, called the receiver and electrode array, is placed under the skin behind the ear and into the hearing organ during a surgical procedure.

Some cochlear implants have technology and accessories so you can transmit sounds from your phone, TV or media player directly to your implant.


We have extensive experience working with all three cochlear implant device manufacturers currently approved by the FDA:

Most insurance companies, including Medicare, cover some of the costs of cochlear implants. 

The Cochlear Implant Process

Cochlear Implant Eligibility

In order to receive a cochlear implant, you must:

  • Be healthy enough to undergo outpatient surgery
  • Have severe hearing loss
  • Have difficulty understanding what people are saying
  • Get little or no benefit from wearing hearing aids
  • Be motivated to have the surgery and be motivated to use the cochlear implant

Having a cochlear implant increases your risk for meningitis. We recommend getting the Prevnar-13 and Pneumovax vaccines prior to surgery to reduce this risk.

Pre-Surgery Process

Your provider team will evaluate your readiness for a cochlear implant device through:

  • A cochlear implant hearing evaluation that includes tests of hearing and speech understanding, with and without your hearing aids
  • Counseling
  • Consultation and examination by the cochlear implant surgeon
  • Review of your hearing history and immunizations
  • CT and/or MRI imaging of the ear and hearing structures

The Implant Procedure

Cochlear implant surgery:

  • Lasts 2 to 3 hours
  • Takes place in most patients without an overnight hospital stay
  • Requires general anesthesia
  • Causes minimal pain

 Most patients return to normal activities within a week of the operation.

Follow-up after Cochlear Implants

You’ll need to visit the surgeon and audiologist:

  • One week after surgery to check healing of the surgery site
  • Four weeks after surgery to activate the cochlear implant, which usually takes two days
  • Several times in the first few months to adjust and fine-tune the cochlear implant computer program
  • Every 6 to 12 months after the first year

What Does a Cochlear Implant Sound Like?

  • Because cochlear implants produce electrical impulses, “hearing” with a cochlear implant is not like hearing with our ears or with a hearing aid.
  • The sound of a cochlear implant is different for each person.