The Secret Deafie: Cochlear implants and MRI scans

Posted on June 18, 2012

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Secret Deafie

The Secret Deafie is a series of anonymous columns written by different writers. Today’s Deafie wants to talk about cochlear implants and MRI scans.

There is a sea change in attitudes to cochlear implants among adults who have grown up D/deaf.
Whatever the Deaf Community feels about them, they are here to stay at least until stem cell technology and gene therapy really takes off and they become redundant technology. Most Deaf people respect them as a personal lifestyle choice for D/deaf adults because they are old and wise enough to choose for themselves.
Friends of mine have gone for the op. Some have implanted their children. However, something has shocked me. After all the anaesthetic and excitement of the switch on, I asked them curiously about what they were told about the risks of implantation by their cochlear implant team. Not one of them was informed that a CI user cannot have an MRI scan without an operation to remove the metal parts of the implant from their head first.
Basically, cochlear implants and MRI scans do not mix. When a person is scanned, they climb into a huge metal tube and they are blasted with a powerful magnetic field. Cochlear implant processors are fixed to the head using a magnet. We all know that magnets repel. The force of an MRI scan could potentially rip out the magnet from a person’s skull.
MRI scans are being used more and more in everyday medicine. They are an extremely accurate method of disease detection throughout the body. They will spot brain tumours, bleeds and swellings, strokes, and scary diseases such as MS or dementia. They are used to pinpoint the cause of back or spine problems, and to examine the heart and other organs. They can identify problems with your muscles, joints or bones, find cancer or help plan surgery. MRI scans are the doctors’ great friend helping to diagnosis a whole load of conditions. MRI scanners are here to stay and most people will need at least one MRI scan in their lifetime.
So what can a person with a cochlear implant do if they need an MRI scan?  Doctors may work around the problem by ordering a different type of investigation or scan (which does not involve a magnetic field). This may sometimes mean the person receives a less efficient or slower medical treatment. Alternatively, the doctor may suggest a small operation to remove the metal parts of the cochlear implant, so the person can have the MRI scan, and then they will reinsert the bits afterwards.
I am not intent on scaremongering here. Far from it. But I feel strongly that Deaf people seeking an implant should know what questions to ask their cochlear implant team. They should be routinely told about all the risks. This is something that does not always seem to be happening.
The good news is that implant companies are working on MRI proof cochlear implants which can go in a scanner. Once they achieve this CI users will get equal medical care to everyone else. However, they still have some way to go before CIs can be routinely used in any scanner because the magnetic fields used are getting stronger. Until then, we deaf people need all the information at our fingertips so we can make the best decision for ourselves and our health.

Do you have a story or experience you’d like to share? If you’d like to write a Secret Deafie column, just email thelimpingchicken@gmail.com

The Limping Chicken is supported by Deaf media company Remark!, training and consultancy Deafworks, provider of sign language services Deaf Umbrella, the National Deaf Children’s Society’s Look, Smile Chat campaign, and the National Theatre’s captioned plays.