Cochlear implants allow people with hearing loss to experience sounds in the environment. All this sensory information can lead to a situation called hearing or listening fatigue.

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Listening takes a lot of effort. Hearing involves a complex relationship between the ears and the brain that many people take for granted. In people with hearing loss, the brain must work particularly hard when listening — even with the use of tools like cochlear implants.

Here’s how cochlear implants work, how they contribute to hearing fatigue, and tips for reducing fatigue throughout the day.

Listening is not a passive act. It takes mental energy for the brain to process sounds. When a person has hearing loss, they expend much effort making sense of sounds in the surrounding environment.

Hearing fatigue (or listening fatigue) is the term used to describe how this work of listening can make a person tired.

While cochlear implants can help a person make out sounds that were previously inaccessible, all this new sensory input can be taxing on the brain.

For example, when a person first gets implants, sounds may be distracting. So many new sounds are accessible all at once. It takes much concentration to wade through the noise and become oriented in the environment.

Not only that but in people who have not experienced typical hearing before, auditory memory (holding oral information during conversation, for instance) may also contribute to fatigue.

Along with fatigue, a person with cochlear implants may experience frustration, disappointment, and even overwhelm.

Listening through cochlear implants is a different experience than typical hearing. While the sounds may not be the same as typical hearing, cochlear implants do allow people to hear warning signals, everyday sounds, and speech in person, over the phone, or online.

Cochlear implants collect sounds from the environment and send them — as signals — directly to the auditory nerve. The brain is able to process these signals as sound.

The sound produced by implants may be somewhat “machine-like.” It may take different therapies to fully make sense of speech. As a result, a person using cochlear implants may rely on other tools — like lip-reading, visual cues, etc. — to round out the listening experience.

Remote meetings present a new set of challenges for people using implants. While live captions can help in these settings, they may not always be available.

Some issues:

  • background noise in the video, making it difficult to pick out the main speaker
  • poor audio and visual quality, making it hard to read lips or observe other cues in conversation
  • rapid pace of conversation — people may talk over one another or move on quickly from one topic to the next

When you put these issues together, it can make a virtual meeting not only difficult to understand but also exhausting to listen in on.

With time, you’ll learn what works best for you and your own hearing fatigue.

Some tips:

  • Turn it down: Lessen background noise in your environment (dishwasher, radio, air conditioner, etc.) so you can better focus on sounds.
  • Pay attention to acoustics: Fatigue may be worse in open spaces with high ceilings — small rooms with a closed door are less distracting.
  • Take a break: Find time each day to designate as quiet time — you might consider reading instead of watching television.
  • Use additional senses: Use visuals to lighten the auditory load.

There are ways you can improve your experience in virtual meetings as well:

  • Ask people to mute themselves when they aren’t the active speaker.
  • Use “active speaker” mode (on Zoom) so the main speaker is the biggest face on your screen.
  • Mention to participants that lighting matters and can help with visual cues throughout the meeting.
  • Ask participants to use a microphone for the clearest sound.
  • Use the text chat button when necessary.

Are there any complications of hearing fatigue?

People who deal with listening fatigue may also deal with more stress and tension. These issues can affect a person’s everyday life, mood, and work or school performance.

How are cochlear implants and hearing aids different?

Cochlear implants are for people with profound hearing loss who no longer benefit from hearing aids. Hearing aids are for people with mild to severe hearing loss.

With hearing aids, sound is amplified before it travels to the hair cells in the inner ear. The sound is converted to signals that are processed by the auditory nerve. Cochlear implants bypass the ear and convert sounds into energy that goes directly to the auditory nerve.

Who benefits the most from cochlear implants?

People who tend to get the best results from implants are young children and adults who previously had typical hearing. People who are born deaf but do not receive implants until a later age may have more difficulty adapting.

Hearing the many sounds that come with daily life can be exhausting, especially with cochlear implants. You don’t need to miss out. Manage the things in your environment you can control. Take breaks when necessary. And let the people around you know about your fatigue and any need for support.