A revolutionary magnetic implant has restored the hearing of a young actor who went deaf in one ear at the age of 17 – and gives new hope to the thousands of Britons who cannot benefit from traditional hearing aids.
Aspiring TV and theatre star Billy Coughlin, 22, from Hall Green, Birmingham, had the groundbreaking procedure at Heartlands Hospital, Birmingham, in March and says: ‘I can now hear the smallest noises, like footsteps.
‘It sounds silly but these are things I’ve not been able to hear for five or six years. I finally feel I’m my normal self again.’
The new device is the bone anchored hearing aid (BAHA) Attract, and it replaces the older version of the BAHA.
While the traditional implant uses a metal screw that is embedded in the patient’s head and channels vibrations to the inner ear, the Attract involves a small magnetic disc being inserted beneath the skin behind the ear.
This allows an electronic sound processor – the size of the bluetooth hands-free mobile phone earpiece – to be attached or removed as needed.
When the receiver is not worn, the implant is completely invisible.
Billy lost most of the hearing in his left ear after developing an infection of the inner ear bones called mastoiditis. He has full hearing in his right ear.
After struggling with his hearing, he was referred to surgeon Matthew Trotter at the hospital’s ENT clinic earlier this year.
Billy trialled the device using a headband to attach it behind the ear. Then, a month after surgery to implant the magnetic disc, a sound receiver was fitted, giving him full hearing again.
‘BAHAs are suitable for patients who have problems with the outer and middle parts of the ear, usually due to infections or previous surgery. In these people, using a normal hearing aid in the ear canal won’t help because the transmitted sounds won’t reach the inner ear.
‘It’s important to note these are not cochlear implants, which are for yet another group of patients – those with hearing loss due to problem in the inner ear.
‘BAHAs basically involve a titanium alloy peg being screwed into the skull behind the ear, so part of it pokes through the skin. In a similar way to a dental implant, the surrounding bone integrates with the screw, making it very secure and not removable.
‘The screw transmits sounds picked up by the receiver directly into the inner ear, bypassing the outer parts. But patients are left with a metal screw sticking out of the head behind the ear, which is visible when the receiver is removed – to swim, for instance.
‘This alone puts many off, but it also takes a lot of care and special cleaning on a daily basis to avoid infection.
‘The great thing about this new implant is there is no screw poking out. The receiver attaches to a small magnet under the skin so when it’s removed, the head looks completely normal.’
The implant is attached during a 40-minute procedure under general anaesthetic. The surgeon cuts a 2in semi-circular flap behind the ear and the implant is drilled about half an inch into the bone beneath. The magnet is attached to the screw and the flap is the stitched back into place. Mr Trotter adds: ‘The skin heals in a fortnight, and the bone knits with the screw within a month. At this point it is stable, and we give the patient their receiver.’
Approximately 1,500 patients with hearing loss who will potentially benefit from a bone-anchored hearing aid are diagnosed each year in the UK. Up to half of these could benefit from the Attract device.
Mr Trotter hopes the Attract will be adopted throughout the NHS.
He says: ‘Not every case is suitable due to the subtle differences in the causes of hearing loss, but it’s worth discussing the option of the Attract with your consultant should you be referred for a BAHA.’
Billy, who has had roles in Doctors on BBC1 and ITVs Peak Practice, had been offered an old-style BAHA but turned it down as he felt a visible screw would affect his chances of success at auditions.
He says: ‘After the operation there was a bit of pain but I only needed a couple of paracetamol.
‘The moment they switched it on was a shock. Being able to hear everything perfectly was distracting at first. But now when I take it off, it’s as if someone has stuck cotton wool in my ear. Having it on feels normal.’