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YOUR HEALTH: A new type of hearing device

Using bones in the skull to restore hearing for those with damage to the outer ear

CINCINNATI — For the millions of Americans who have trouble hearing, hearing aids or implantable devices can be life-changing.

And although about 15% of all American adults report some trouble hearing, fewer than one in three people who could benefit from hearing aids have ever used them.

For some, infection or injury to the ear has made that difficult, but now specialists are implanting a new device that gives patients another option.

It involves an implant that actually is put into the bone.

It's called the Bonebridge which is also known as a bone conduction device.

"If you tap your skull, you can actually hear sound within the bone itself," said Dr. Ravi Samy, chief of the University of Cincinnati's division of Otology/Neurotology

With normal hearing, sound vibrations go through the outer ear, into the inner ear. 

The Bonebridge is surgically implanted, and bypasses the damaged outer ear, by picking up sounds and sending them directly to the inner ear through the bones of the skull.

"I'll just make an incision behind the ear, open up the skin behind the ear, and then actually drill into the bone and then put the device into the bone," Dr. Samy explained.

Patients wear an external sound processor, which is magnetically held in place over the implant. 

When audiologists activate the device, it restores their hearing.

The Bonebridge works best for people with mixed hearing loss or single-sided deafness and is an option for those who have trouble wearing hearing aids.

Hearing Aids vs. Cochlear Implants

Hearing aids and cochlear implants help people with hearing loss communicate better. 

Hearing aids do not require surgery and are best suited for people with less severe hearing loss and fair speech understanding. 

Cochlear implants require surgery and are best suited for people with more severe hearing loss and poor speech understanding. 

Hearing aids only amplify sounds by bypassing the outer ear and either translates sounds into vibrations delivered to the middle ear or electrical impulses delivered directly to the inner ear. 

A cochlear implant device allows you to hear through electrical stimulation. 

A surgically placed implant bypasses your inner ear which translates acoustic sound into electrical signals. 

Hearing aids can range from $3,400 to $6,000 for a pair, whereas cochlear implants can run $60,000 to $100,000 and higher per implant. 

It generally takes around two weeks or less to adapt to hearing aids, and approximately six to 12 or more months to adapt to a cochlear implant. 

Research into New Medications

Researchers with Harvard Medical School at Massachusetts Eye and Ear, may have found a way to help hearing loss through bone density medication testing

Led by Konstantina Stankovic, associate professor of otolaryngology head and neck surgery at Massachusetts Eye and Ear, and Albert Edge, researchers found medications called bisphosphonates, which are commonly used to prevent bone density loss, were able to regrow damaged nerve connections in the inner ear in mice with sensorineural hearing loss. 

While the findings require further study in animal models, the research team hopes it could be a promising target for conducting clinical trials in people. 

If this story has impacted your life or prompted you or someone you know to seek or change treatments, please let us know by contacting Jim Mertens at jim.mertens@wqad.com or Marjorie Bekaert Thomas at mthomas@ivanhoe.com.