Healthdirect Free Australian health advice you can count on.

Medical problem? Call 1800 022 222. If you need urgent medical help, call triple zero immediately

healthdirect Australia is a free service where you can talk to a nurse or doctor who can help you know what to do.

beginning of content

Cochlear implant

8-minute read

Key facts

  • A cochlear implant is a device that is surgically inserted into your inner ear to provide sound signals directly to your brain.
  • It can help some people with severe hearing loss to hear better.
  • If your child needs a cochlear implant, the younger they have it put in, the better their speech and language development can be.
  • After the implant is inserted, it must be tuned to your ear and then you will need rehabilitation to train your brain to recognise the sound signals.
  • If you develop an ear infection, a fever, or any other ear symptoms when you have a cochlear implant, see your doctor immediately.

What is a cochlear implant?

A cochlear implant is a small electronic device that is surgically inserted into the cochlea, a part of your inner ear, to help you hear better. The implant stimulates your hearing nerve to provide sound signals directly to your brain. Cochlear implants are also known as 'bionic ears'.

If you have hearing loss, a cochlear implant may help you:

  • understand speech and communicate better
  • sense which direction sound is coming from
  • hear despite loud background noise

How does a cochlear implant work?

The cochlear implant has 2 parts: external and internal.

The external part is a sound processor that is worn behind your ear. It looks like a hearing aid and is powered by batteries. It contains small microphones that capture sounds and send them through your skin to the internal part of the implant.

The internal part is an implant, which needs to be fitted by a surgeon. It picks up signals from the sound processor and stimulates the nerve fibres in your inner ear. The nerve signals travel to your brain, where they are turned into sound.

Illustration of a cochlear implant showing the sound processor, transmitter, receiver and the cochlear with implant electrodes
The sound processor captures sound and sends electrical signals through the transmitter to the implant, which then stimulate the cochlea's hearing nerve, sending the impulses to the brain.

Who can benefit from a cochlear implant?

A cochlear implant can help adults and children who have sensorineural deafness. This means that part of the inner ear doesn't work properly. The cochlear implant bypasses the damaged part of the inner ear.

It is suitable for people who:

  • have severe or profound hearing loss
  • have hearing nerves that work
  • can't overcome their hearing loss with hearing aids
  • are able to participate in speech therapy after the implant is inserted

If your child was born with severe hearing loss, having a cochlear implant fitted at a young age helps them develop language skills. The implants can be inserted into babies as young as 6 months old. The younger your child receives treatment, the better they can pick up language and learn to speak. Language skills will help them learn at school and interact socially.

What's the difference between a cochlear implant and a hearing aid?

A hearing aid makes sounds louder, so you can hear them better through your ear. However, this may not be enough if your inner ear is badly damaged. A cochlear implant bypasses the damaged area and sends sound signals directly to your hearing nerve.

How do I prepare for the procedure?

If you are having a cochlear implant fitted, you will need to see a team of specialists. They might include:

  • an ear, nose and throat surgeon (also called an ENT or otolaryngologist)
  • an audiologist
  • a speech pathologist
  • a social worker
  • a psychologist
  • a teacher for people with hearing loss

The specialist team will examine you. Tests may include:

  • specialist hearing tests with and without your hearing aids
  • medical examination of your ear
  • speech and language assessment
  • CT and/or MRI scans to check whether your ear is suitable for a cochlear implant

The team might recommend a cochlear implant in one or both ears.

You might want to talk to people who already have a cochlear implant, so ask your team to suggest a support group in your local area.

Learn more about how to prepare for surgery here.

What happens during the procedure?

When you have a cochlear implant fitted, you will have a general anaesthetic. The surgeon will make a small cut behind your ear and insert the implant. When it is in position, your health team will check the implant is working. The procedure can take 1 to 3 hours.

You will probably need to stay in hospital overnight.

What can I expect after the procedure?

Most people have minor discomfort only. You might have some vertigo or ringing in your ears.

The cochlear implant will be switched on once your wound has healed, which could be any time between one day and 6 weeks after surgery. An audiologist will fine tune the device to improve your hearing. This usually takes several sessions.

It can take time until you can hear clearly. Rehabilitation will involve an audiologist and/or speech therapist. This helps train your brain to interpret and recognise what sounds mean. If you have used hearing aids in the past, things might sound different with a cochlear implant. Hearing gets better and easier over time and with practice.

See your doctor immediately if you develop an ear infection or a fever. You might need antibiotics to prevent the infection spreading or causing meningitis.

What can go wrong?

It's important to discuss the benefits and risks with your surgeon before deciding to have the procedure. Most of the time there are no complications, but the risks can include:

  • infection at the site where the implant is inserted
  • meningitis (a serious infection of the membranes around the brain)
  • damage to the facial nerve, which can cause paralysis of facial muscles
  • failure of the implant and needing another procedure to replace it

There are vaccines available, which lower your risk of meningitis. You will be advised to have these vaccines if you haven't already received them.

See your ENT specialist if you have discharge from your ear, watery discharge from your nose or any other ear symptoms.

How do I take care of my cochlear implant?

There are some things can do to look after your implant:

  • The sound processor is not waterproof, so you will need to keep it dry. If you go swimming, you can take it off or cover it with a special cover.
  • You will need to recharge or replace the batteries regularly.
  • Avoid contact sports so your implant isn't damaged.

Your treating team will give you safety instructions for a range of situations that might affect your implant.

Resources and support

  • Visit Aussie Deaf Kids for more information about cochlear implants for your child.
  • The Department of Health Hearing Services Program can help you check if you are eligible and help you apply for hearing support services.
  • You should talk to your health professional about the benefits and risks of getting a medical implant. Use the Therapeutic Goods Administration's guide on what to ask. The information is in English, Arabic, Croatian, Farsi, Greek, Italian, Korean, Mandarin, Spanish, Turkish and Vietnamese.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: July 2022

Back To Top

Need more information?

These trusted information partners have more on this topic.

Top results

Cochlear Implant Services • NextSense

NextSense is a world leader in cochlear implant services for adults and children with hearing loss. Our cochlear implant surgeries are conducted by Australia’s leading Ear Nose and Throat surgeons.

Read more on NextSense website

Cochlear implant | Sydney Children's Hospitals Network

A cochlear implant is a surgically implanted device that stimulates the nerves of the inner ear, or cochlear

Read more on Sydney Children's Hospitals Network website

Hear At Any Age With A Cochlear Implant

Many adults, even those over 90 years of age, have restored their hearing with a cochlear implant. There is no evidence that disapproves this.

Read more on Ear Science Institute Australia website

Cochlear Implant | FAQs - Ear Science Institute Australia

Thousands of Australians could benefit hugely from a hearing implant. Only a little more than 8% of those that need a cochlear implant will get one?

Read more on Ear Science Institute Australia website

Cochlear Implant Journey • NextSense

NextSense is here to support your individual cochlear implants journey, from your first consultation to a lifetime of care. Our team of specialists, surgeons and allied health professionals will work with you to achieve the best possible outcomes for you, or your child.

Read more on NextSense website

Is a cochlear implant right for you? - Ear Science Institute Australia

If your hearing aids are not as helpful as you would like, a Cochlear implant may give you the speech clarity to regain your confidence in social situations.

Read more on Ear Science Institute Australia website

My child needs a cochlear implant. Now what? - Hearing Australia

The microphone on the speech processor picks up sound

Read more on Hearing Australia website

Hearing Implant Clinic - Ear Science Institute Australia

Ear Science Implant Clinic has become the largest hearing implant clinic in Perth, specialising in cochlear implants, middle ear implants and more!

Read more on Ear Science Institute Australia website

Implantable Devices - Hearing Australia

An implantable device may be a reliable and effective option for some hearing losses

Read more on Hearing Australia website

Helping your child manage hearing loss in a noisy world - Hearing Australia

Even the best-fitted hearing aids or cochlear implant fall prey to external factors

Read more on Hearing Australia website

Healthdirect 24hr 7 days a week hotline

24 hour health advice you can count on

1800 022 222

Government Accredited with over 140 information partners

We are a government-funded service, providing quality, approved health information and advice

Australian Government, health department logo ACT Government logo New South Wales government, health department logo Northen Territory Government logo Queensland Government logo Government of South Australia, health department logo Tasmanian government logo Victorian government logo Government of Western Australia, health department logo

Healthdirect Australia acknowledges the Traditional Owners of Country throughout Australia and their continuing connection to land, sea and community. We pay our respects to the Traditional Owners and to Elders both past and present.