Cilla Black has a ‘hearing implant’ fitted but the Mail Online story doesn’t stack up

Posted on April 8, 2014

The Mail Online reported yesterday that the entertainer Cilla Black has had a hearing implant insterted into her right ear after she started to go deaf and speculated that the device was probably a cochlear implant.

It was reported that Cilla, best known as a singer and presenter of Surprise, Surprise! opted for a cochlear implant as an alternative to hearing aids and to ‘nip it (the deafness) in the bud’ before it got too bad – but that seems very unlikely. Cochlear implants are mainly reserved as an intervention for people who are profoundly or severely deaf and only when hearing aids provide little or no benefit. Certainly not to nip anything in the bud.

The level of Cilla’s hearing loss isn’t revealed in the article but we are told that an implant was used as an alternative to hearing aids. Crucially, cochlear implants are normally provided when, in terms of auditory input at least, there is no alternative, meaning that hearing aids don’t work for that individual any more. It is said that cochlear implants provide a level of sound similar to mild to moderate hearing loss, so it doesn’t make sense that a cochlear implant was chosen by Cilla. It would be the proverbial sledgehammer to crack a nut.

There are other hearing implants that are a possibility and more likely in this case. The most likely candidate is known as the ‘Vibrant Soundbridge‘ or middle ear implant. Middle ear implants look a bit like cochlear implants at first glance but work in a very different way. They still require an implant to be inserted under the skin and a small device to be worn worn on the head behind the ear. Unlike a hearing aid, there is nothing placed the ear canal itself and unlike a cochlear implant, no equipment sits on the ear so they are cosmetically easier to disguise.

The ‘Soundbridge’ middle ear implant is advertised by the manufacturer, Medel, as an alternative to hearing aids for people with a mild to moderate sensorineural or conductive loss. Sensorinural means that the deafness is related to the nerve system and conductive means that there is some other cause, like glue ear or problems with the tiny bones in the middle-ear that vibrate when sound hits the ear drum.

Rather than amplify sounds, middle ear implants are attached to one of those tiny bones in the middle ear and increase its movement when sound is detected by the microphone on the outside. This increased movement creates vibrations that activate the tiny nerve endings, or hair cells, in the cochlear. See this video for a full explanation.

It seems more likely to me that a middle ear implant is the kind of implant Cilla Black received, given the implied level of her hearing loss in the article. A cochlear implant seems like drastic action to remedy a hearing loss before it got too serious but middle-ear implants could have been just the ticket. Middle-ear implants are not in the public conciousness like cochlear implants are despite having their own emotional ‘switch-on’ videos.

The video below shows a woman having her device switched on for the first time. This device is a completely implanted device, with absolutely nothing worn at all on the outside and is currently available in America. This kind of device could also be something that Cilla could have had implanted. Another clue in the article that points to this device is that she struggled with buzzing noises at night. This totally implantable device cannot be turned off at night and while not available on the NHS, could have been purchased privately.

By Andy Palmer, Deputy Editor. Andy also volunteers for the Peterborough and District Deaf Children’s Society on their website, deaf football coaching and other events. Contact him on twitter @LC_AndyP

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Posted in: Andy Palmer, Regulars