Rush Limbaugh calls it "miraculous." And hearing experts say the cutting-edge cochlear implant the radio superstar received in his right ear recently will likely boost his on-air capabilities.
"The prognosis for Mr. Limbaugh is quite good," Dr. René H. Gifford, a professor and director of the Cochlear Implant Program at Vanderbilt University, tells Newsmax Health. "He will instantly benefit from having [two hearing devices] … Cochlear implants are hands-down the best intervention we have available."
Limbaugh previously had the surgery on his left ear, but had been deaf in his right ear. Without the implants, the talk show host says he would be "100 percent deaf."
Dr. Carolyn Smaka, an audiologist and editor-in-chief of AudiologyOnline, agrees that there are no drawbacks to receiving a second cochlear implant.
"Having a second will give him [an advantage]," she says. "We have two ears, of course, so if you’re only relying on one ear it's very difficult for the brain to sort out what to listen to and what sounds you should suppress. "
Dr. Smaka adds that someone working in radio might have a hard time relying on a single ear — listening to callers over the phone, having studio conversations with one or two other people in the room, and possibly getting information via an earpiece from his producers.
That's where having a second implant could help him focus on what voices to pay attention to and which sounds to tune out — something hearing specialists refer to as the "cocktail party effect," she explains .
"The cocktail party effect refers to the idea that … if I'm at a cocktail party and I'm talking you, how do I focus on your voice and tune out every other conversation in the room?" she explains. "One advantage of having both ears working is you can do that. So hearing from both sides with two cochlear implants will help [Limbaugh] be better able to do that that. "
Dr. Susan B. Waltzman, a professor of otolaryngology and co-director of the New York University Cochlear Implant Center, tells Newsmax Health that it's uncertain how much hearing Limbaugh will regain.
"Prognosis depends on many factors and it is often difficult to predict with any certainty especially since we don’t know his history, performance, etc.," she said. "There will likely be a period of adjustment."
Dr. Waltzman added that cochlear implants "are the best option for those with severe-to-profound hearing loss. Hearing aids provide benefit to those with lesser degrees of hearing loss. "
On Thursday, Limbaugh said on his radio show that he had taken a week off to have the surgery for the second cochlear implant.
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He said he received the first implant in his left ear 13 years ago, but over time his hearing had deteriorated. "When I originally got this implant I was at 80 percent speech comprehension, and now I'm at 55 percent," he explained on his show. "It's gotten worse."
Limbaugh said that the decision to get a second implant was one he didn't take lightly. If the procedure doesn't work, it may mean his hearing will be lost for good. "But, after exhaustive research, which included even witnessing a live surgery, I decided to get cochlear implant on the right side," he said.
Hearing through the implants is not the same as natural hearing, Limbaugh explained, likening it to a "scratchy, static AM radio."
Still, he said he has adapted to it and feels lucky to have benefited from the technology. "It's miraculous," he said. "If this had happened to me 10 years before it did, it would have meant the end of my career."
A cochlear implant is a small, complex electronic device that consists of an external portion that sits behind the ear and a second portion that is surgically placed under the skin. It is different from a hearing aid, which amplifies sounds. Instead, cochlear implants bypass damage portions of the ear and directly stimulate the auditory nerve.
Doctors plan to switch on Limbaugh's new cochlear implant May 9, and begin a process to program the device.
"It can be better than what I'm used to, it can be worse," said Limbaugh. "I mean, the right side of my brain's been dormant. It hasn't been used for hearing. It may have forgotten how. You never know."
Dr. Smaka says the new implant will require a period of adjustment for Limbaugh, but won't likely require major changes in his lifestyle.
"It's just the hassle factor," she explains. "You have to wear devices on both sides of your head, you have to change the batteries on both devices and keep them both dry. And then there is the recovery from minor surgery."
She adds that new advances in the field — including promising new developments in using gene therapy technology to boost the effectiveness of cochlear implants — are likely to lead to better options for people with hearing loss in the future.
"The cochlear implants are going to get better," she predicts. "This is a really fast-paced and growing treatment area and there really are new developments coming along almost every day. We expect totally new developments in this field so that there are going to be implants in the future that will be completely new, that we can’t even imagine today."
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