Why Did Rush Limbaugh Need a Cochlear Implant?
February 04, 2022

Rush Limbaugh was a conservative radio personality that had established quite the following in his many decades on the air. The massive popularity of his talk show “The Rush Limbaugh Show” is often considered one of the most popular programs when it comes to radio as a medium for news and entertainment.  

“The Rush Limbaugh Show” aired from 1988 all the way until 2021 where the show ended with Limbaugh’s passing at the age of 70. During this time, Limbaugh had his fair share of difficulties not just from some of his controversial takes but also with his health. 

One of those issues has to do with his hearing, and any fan of Limbaugh is likely familiar that he has a cochlear implant. Below is a closer look at the reason behind his cochlear implant, what exactly a cochlear implant does, as well as other reasons an individual may need a cochlear implant. 

What Is a Cochlear Implant?

A cochlear implant is an assistive hearing device that helps individuals with severe forms of hearing loss to regain the ability to perceive sound again. A cochlear implant consists of two main parts: the internally implanted unit and the external unit.

Take a closer look at these components and how exactly they work together to help individuals with severe hearing loss. 

Internal Unit

The internally implanted unit consists of two main parts. The first is an electrode array, and the second is a receiver. The internal component of the cochlear implant is where it gets its name since this part of the device is implanted into the cochlea.

The cochlea is a snail-shaped structure that is found in the inner ear. The cochlea is responsible for converting vibrations into neural signals sent to the brain. 

The electrode array portion of the implant is inserted into the cochlea, and the receiver portion is transplanted near the surface of the skull. A wire connects the two pieces.

External Unit

The other component of the cochlear implant is the external unit. The external unit contains a microphone, a processing unit, and a transceiver. The external component is responsible for converting sounds into a signal that is then relayed to the internal unit for it to stimulate the inner ear. 

How Does a Cochlear Implant Work?

A cochlear implant is essentially a hearing device that circumvents normal hearing. The microphone in the external unit is able to create electrical patterns based upon noise in your environment. These sounds picked up by the microphone are then processed in the processing unit into an appropriate format for stimulating the cochlea.

The signal then leaves the external unit from the transceiver. Next, the implanted receiver picks up the signal and relays that message to the electrode array that then electrically stimulates the cochlea.

What Do Cochlear Implants Sound Like?

Cochlear implants are an excellent means of restoring the ability to detect sounds in your environment, but they are by no means a direct one-for-one replacement for natural hearing. Frequently those that end up going the route of cochlear implants are doing so as a means of last resort to allow them to have some kind of sound awareness. 

Cochlear implants are fairly common; there are people that have had these devices from childhood and some that have gotten them later in life. For those that go a majority of their life hearing and then get cochlear implants, it can be quite the change.

Many people who get the implant later in life describe their new set of technological ears as sounding slightly distorted, robotic, or squeaky. While this can be difficult in the beginning, over time, most people get used to them and are able to carry out conversations with more ease. As technology continues to improve, the sound quality capable of cochlear implants is also likely to improve. 

Rush Limbaugh and His Hearing Loss

Rush Limbaugh started his radio show at the age of 37. In the decades to follow, he significantly increased his fan base. While his fan base grew, in the early 2000s, Limbaugh was diagnosed with a rare autoimmune condition called Autoimmune Inner Ear Disease (AIED). By 2001, Limbaugh was essentially deaf despite the best efforts of medication therapy and other treatments. 

Limbaugh’s ear condition is one that is quite rare and one that many people know very little about.

Below is a closer look at what an autoimmune disorder is, how AIED affects the ears, as well as why cochlear implants were the next best step for Limbaugh. 

What Are Autoimmune Disorders?

Autoimmune disease is a category of illness that is caused by the immune system attacking itself. The immune system's main function is to identify foreign invaders like a virus or bacteria and eliminate them by destroying them with an immune response.

With an autoimmune disorder, the immune system essentially begins targeting healthy tissues within your body, resulting in them becoming destroyed and a subsequent loss of function. 

Some autoimmune disorders you may have heard of before are type 1 diabetes, Hashimoto's disease, and rheumatoid arthritis. While these disorders are more common, AIED is a rare autoimmune condition that affects a much smaller proportion of people. 

Autoimmune Inner Ear Disease (AIED)

AIED is an autoimmune condition where the immune system starts to target the tissues of the inner ear. Once the body misidentifies this tissue, there is not much that can be done in terms of stopping the body from attacking itself. One method that may be effective in reducing the amount of damage the immune system can inflict is utilizing steroids to suppress the immune response. 

In terms of long-term outlook, the use of steroids may be effective. Yet, despite advances in medicine, the autoimmune response may still prevail despite treatment with steroids. In this case, the immune system will continue to target and slowly degrade the structures of the inner ear.

As a consequence of this tissue being eliminated, hearing tends to slowly decline until the individual is no longer able to hear. After AIED, an individual can be left with profound or complete hearing loss

In addition to losing the sense of hearing, having one autoimmune disease increases the likelihood of getting another. Many people with AIED or other forms of autoimmune disorders need to stay diligent and go in for blood work on a routine basis. Ensuring the body isn’t inflicting further damage to itself is vital. 

Coping with AIED

AIED is a condition that can seem to just occur out of the blue, and it can be difficult to cope with a decline in your hearing. Just imagine the case with Limbaugh. He had spent years building an audience for an entirely audio-based talk show; having his hearing taken away was likely something that was quite hard to deal with. 

When it comes to coping with AIED, while there are a couple of options, the only one that offers the potential for some resemblance of normal hearing is a cochlear implant. Other options for coping include learning sign language, utilizing hearing assistive technology like closed captions and dictation software. 

In the case of Limbaugh, the choice he made was to go with a cochlear implant. This option made quite a bit of sense since his livelihood and career depended on his ability to speak clearly, hear guests, and effectively communicate verbally. 

What Are the Risks of Cochlear Implants?

While a cochlear implant is a great option for those that are almost deaf, it does come with some amount of recovery time and risks. One of the largest risk factors when it comes to a cochlear implant is that it can reduce and even eliminate any residual hearing. Not only this but the procedure to place the implant can also have potential complications. 

Another aspect to consider with cochlear implants is that they are not an overnight solution. Hearing devices like hearing aids can provide immediate benefit upon the first use, but a cochlear implant takes time.

After the surgery, time is needed for the area to heal before attaching the external unit. When the implant is first activated, an audiologist needs to tune it to your hearing. Even then, it could take months and even years to get desirable results. 

AIED, Cochlear Implants, and Hearing Loss

Rush Limbaugh needed cochlear implants due to a condition known as Autoimmune Inner Ear Disease (AIED) that reduced his ability to hear and caused him to go deaf in 2001. Following the implant procedure, Limbaugh continued his talk show and continued to have a successful career in talk radio up until his death in 2021.

With a cochlear implant for over 20 years, Limbaugh is a prime example of how hearing assistive devices like cochlear implants and hearing aids can help to provide an individual with a better quality of life and to keep doing what you love. 


Sources

Autoimmune Disease Symptoms | MedlinePlus

Autoimmune Inner Ear Disease | ASHA

Benefits and Risks of Cochlear Implants | FDA

What Are Cochlear Implants for Hearing? | NIDCD

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Drew Sutton M.D.

Drew Sutton, MD is a board-certified otolaryngologist. He has extensive experience and training in sinus and respiratory diseases, ear and skull base surgery, and pulmonary disorders. He has served as a Clinical Instructor at Grady Hospital Emory University for more than 12 years.

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