What is the treatment for a cholesteatoma?

The treatment for a cholesteatoma is to remove it surgically. There are 3 main reasons to operate which are:

  1. To make the ear SAFE – to try and avoid the potentially serious complications
  2. To make the ear dry – a smelly discharge is the reason many patients come to the doctor
  3. To restore function – it maybe possible to repair any damaged hearing

What types of operations are there to remove a cholesteatoma?

There are many different ways to operate to remove a cholesteatoma and your surgeon will discuss his preferred technique with you. The approach chosen will be influenced by a number of factors.
There are many different ways to operate to remove a cholesteatoma and your surgeon will discuss his preferred technique with you. The approach chosen will be influenced by a number of factors but essentially there are two main types of technique:

1. OPEN techniques – also known as CANAL WALL DOWN techniques


2. CLOSED techniques – also known as CANAL WALL UP TECHNIQUES

The ‘canal wall’ referred to is the back wall of the ear canal. This area of bone separates the ear canal from the hollow mastoid bone.

Stacks Image 929


Names for this type of operation:

  • Canal Wall Up Mastoidectomy
  • Combined Approach Tympanoplasty = a CAT
  • Atticotomy with reconstruction
  • Attico-antrostomy with reconstruction

My preferred option is the CLOSED TECHNIQUE.

In the CLOSED technique the mastoid bone is hollowed out to expose the cholesteatoma disease in the mastoid bone.

The ear drum is lifted up to expose the middle ear space and the disease in that area is removed.

The back wall of the ear canal is left in place separating the ear canal from the hollowed out mastoid bone. If areas of the ear canal need to be removed they are repaired with cartilage.

The ear drum is then rebuilt and placed back in its normal position. The patient is left with a normal ear canal.

The operation:

Stacks Image 4446

This is a right ear. The ear has been cut from behind and moved forward. The mastoid bone is exposed. The ear canal is the hole in front of the dotted line(arrow). The area to be drilled is shown by the dotted line.

Stacks Image 4461

The ear canal is widened a little to see the bony area of the ear canal which has been worn away. This is just above the ear drum(x) The mastoid bone is hollowed out and and the cholesteatoma disease can be seen.

Stacks Image 4519

The cholesteatoma ‘sac’ contains dead skin. It is like a sock with the opening above the ear canal. The dotted line represents the size of the sac. The sac has been opened and the skin inside can be seen.

Stacks Image 4524

More of the ‘sac’ has been removed – only the back wall is remaining. The ear canal remains intact.

Stacks Image 4587

The mastoid bone has been cleared of disease. The ear drum has been lifted up and the space behind the ear drum(arrow) has been cleared.

Stacks Image 4592

The deep part of the ear canal which was worn away by the disease has been rebuilt with cartilage(arrow)

Stacks Image 4632

The ear drum has been rebuilt using a thin membrane of tissue called ‘fascia’ which comes from the covering of one of the muscles under the skin. The fascia continues up to cover the cartilage repair.

Stacks Image 4637

6 months after the operation. The new ear drum (A) and the repaired ear canal(B) can be seen. The patient now has a normal ear canal. They can get it wet and they can swim and it shouldn’t need regular cleaning. They can wear a hearing aid if necessary. Essentially they can forget about their ear and treat it as normal. If the hearing bones have been removed they can be replaced with a future operation.

canal wall up mastoidectomy diagram

The advantages of this technique:

  • At that at the end of the operation the patient is left with a normal ear canal.
  • By about two months after the surgery my patients can get the ear wet – so they can usually swim, shower and take part in water sports without the need for an ear plug.
  • The ear drum is rebuilt and placed in its normal position recreating an air filled middle ear space. This allows attempts to restore the hearing at a future operation (occasionally this can be done at the first operation). Also after a year the ear drum is completely healed and its position can be gauged to allow an accurate assessment of the size of any prosthesis needed to reconstruct the hearing.
  • Sometimes if the hearing chain has not been damaged it is possible to leave it in place and so preserve the hearing.
  • Regular cleaning of the ear is not usually required.
  • Ultimately the patient hopefully has a trouble free ear which they can completely forget about (apart from maybe an annual check by the surgeon)

The disadvantages are:

  • That usually two operations are required the second operation being about a year after the first. This is to make sure that all the ‘skin’ was removed. Because the ear canal is till in place one can not see into the hollowed out mastoid bone by looking down the ear hole.If a few skin cells were left behind at the original operation they will very slowly regrow and form a small cyst. Because any regrowth is so slow we normally wait a year before the second operation to be sure that any regrowth will be big enough to see and remove. Sometimes an MRI scan can be performed instead of an operation to look for and regrowth of skin.
  • The new ear drum may drop in and form a new ‘cholesteatoma’ which would need to be sorted out at the second operation.


Names for this type of operation:

  • Modified Radical Mastoidectomy
  • Radical Mastoidectomy
  • Canal Wall Down Mastoidectomy

In an OPEN technique the mastoid bone is hollowed out with a drill to expose the cholesteatoma, the ear drum is lifted up and the back wall of the ear canal, which separates the ear canal from the mastoid bone, is removed.

The hollowed out mastoid bone is joined to the ear canal. This creates a ‘mastoid cavity’.

The disease is removed, the ear drum is rebuilt and replaced inwards to close off the Eustachian tube.

The hollowed out mastoid bone is lined with a graft and the ear hole is enlarged. The patient is left with a ‘mastoid cavity’.

mastoid cavity diagram

The operation:

Stacks Image 8338

This is a left ear. The ear has been cut from behind and moved forward. The mastoid bone is exposed. The ear canal is the area in front of the dotted line. The area to be drilled is shown by the dotted line.

Stacks Image 8340

The mastoid bone is hollowed out and the disease is removed from the mastoid area

Stacks Image 8384

The bony wall between the ear canal and the mastoid cavity is removed.

Stacks Image 8393

The hollowed out mastoid bone is now part of the ear canal. The ear drum is rebuilt to create a new middle ear space and separate the Eustachian tube from the mastoid cavity. The mastoid cavity grows a skin lining. The mastoid cavity can now be seen by looking into the ear hole.
The advantage of this technique is that it usually requires only one operation.

The disadvantages are:

  • Takes longer to heal – often requiring regular cleaning of the cavity in the early post operative period which is often not well tolerated by children.
  • The cavity may be prone to becoming infected.
  • The cavity may build up wax and need lifelong regular visits to the doctor or nurse for dewaxing.
  • Having the cavity cleaned with a suction machine can make the patient very dizzy because the balance system now form the back wall of the cavity.
  • The cavity usually needs to be kept dry: meaning extra precautions when hair washng, showering and restricting water sports.
  • If cold water or cold air gets in the cavity it can make the patient feel dizzy.
  • It is more difficult to reconstruct the hearing (in my hands)
  • It can be difficult to get a hearing aid to fit the enlarged ear hole; and closing off the cavity with a hearing aid can cause infections.

Having said all that some cavities are completely trouble free and self cleaning.

The above is my experience of open cavity techniques – other surgeons may have a different experience and some employ techniques to make the cavity smaller and try and overcome these problems.

What does the operation involve?

The operation is performed under a general anaesthetic – so you will be fast asleep and not be aware of what is going on.

Sometimes a very small amount of hair needs to be shaved from behind the ear.

I make a cut in the crease behind the ear which will be closed with absorbable stitches at the end of the operation.

The operation could take anything between 2 – 4 hours depending on the extent of the disease. There are lots of delicate structures all within a few millimetres of each other so great care is taken to avoid any injury to these structures.

At the end of the operation the ear canal or the mastoid cavity is packed with an antiseptic dressing. This will stay in place for about 3 weeks and is removed in the outpatients clinic.

You will usually wake up with a large bandage around your head which is holding a pressure dressing over the ear. The bandage will be removed after a few hours or the following morning.

Patients used to always stay overnight and go home the next dat but we are performing more operations as day cases so you go home on the same day as the operation. This will depend on the timing of the surgery, the duration of the surgery, how you feel afterwards, your personal preference and your home circumstances.

You can not drive for 48 hours after any general anaesthetic operation (your car insurance will not be valid).

The area may feel uncomfortable afterwards but is not usually particularly painful. The discomfort is usually controlled with simple painkillers.

I will see you in the outpatients department 3 – 4 weeks after the surgery and remove the ear canal dressing. You will then need some further visits to make sure that everything is healing as planned.

It is important to keep water out of the ear canal until the area if fully healed. Most of my patients who have had a closed technique procedure will be able to get the ear wet after about 2 months. An open technique procedure may take longer to heal and the ear may always need to be kept dry.

I suggest that you do not fly for about 2 months after the operation.

What are the risks of the operation?

The ear contains many different important structures in a very confined space.

Any of these structures could be damaged by the untreated cholesteatoma disease or the operation.

These complications of the untreated disease are uncommon but potentially very serious.

All of the structures in the ear are also at risk during the operation. Below is an information sheet that I give to all my patients to explain the risks of operations for cholesteatoma.

Mastoid info

Is there an alternative to surgery?

The alternative to surgery is to continue with regular cleaning and observation in the outpatient clinic, which I would not normally recommend.

Surgery is not without risk and the alternative to surgery is to continue with regular cleaning and observation in the outpatient clinic. In the case of cholesteatoma this is not an alternative that I would normally recommend.

Looking down the ear canal in the outpatient clinic does not allow us to see the extent of the disease or completely remove it with the suction equipment. If the cholesteatoma disease is left untreated it could damage any of the structures discussed above. Chronic infection could spread into the mastoid bone causing a mastoiditis or deeper into the head causing meningitis of brain abscess. These are rare but serious complications.







Patient Comments

  • I was very happy with my consultation with Mr. Pringle. I felt I was in safe hands and confident that he could deal with my problem. I would not hesitate to have another appointment with Mr. Pringle. Many thanks.

    CW, Dec 2016

  • Mr Pringle's analysis of my case and discussion of potential treatment inspires me with hope that my long running condition can be overcome.

    DT, Nov 2016

  • I was very happy and confident with my consultation with Mr Pringle. Highly impressed. My partner was also impressed by the time given.

    FB, Aug 2016

  • Mr Pringle was efficient, patient and thorough during my consultation. I was reassured by his quiet, matter of fact approach. I received a prompt response to an email enquiry and a further test was arranged swiftly and efficiently. I will respect Mr Pringle's advice regarding any further treatment I may require.

    SH, Jul 2016

  • Mr Pringle's examination and explanation of my medical condition was very easy to understand and very reassuring. I left his consulting room feeling relieved and happy.

    PD, Jul 2016

  • An excellent consultant that comes highly recommended. I found him to be very attentive, keen to diagnose the problem and easy to talk to.

    Mrs CM, Jan 2107

  • Approachable, friendly and put my very nervous daughter at ease. Explained the condition well with diagrams and gave us a timetable for future treatment. Thanks.

    Mrs ED, Mar 2017

  • Mr Pringle was very reassuring and took time to listen. I felt confident when I left, that I had received the best advice.

    Mrs JP, Jun 2017

  • Mr Pringle was able to help with a longstanding problem and give valuable advice and suggested treatment. I am now improving my condition and optimistic that I will have an end to this longstanding problem.

    Mr AW, Jun 2017

  • Mr Pringle was able to diagnose and treat my hearing problem quickly and efficiently. I left the hospital feeling satisfied that everything possible was being done to help me.

    Name withheld, Mar 2018

  • Mr Pringle was very professional and explained what could have caused my hearing issue in a clear and concise way and what the next steps for further analysis to determine the root cause of the issue.

    Name withheld, April 2018

  • A massive relief to have a correct diagnosis after 10 years or more treatment. We are obviously concerned about the forthcoming treatment but grateful to finally see an end in sight.

    ED, Mar 2017

  • Mr Pringle is very professional and honest and I have every confidence in his medical opinions. I have no problems recommending him.

    Mr RC, May 2018

  • I felt my appointment with Mr Pringle went very well. He listened to my concerns, understood completely what I was saying, did a couple of tests on the spot and made me feel completely at ease. I would be happy to recommend Mr Pringle to family and friends.

    Ms NS, May 2018

  • Mr Pringle was very professional and did a very thorough examination and gave me a clear and concise advice as to my condition and what should be done to deal with it, I felt very reassured.

    Mr JE, Jun 2018

  • Mr Pringle was very friendly and my 3 year old daughter felt at ease. She sat and did exactly what he asked so we had a very positive appointment. We felt he was very thorough and didn’t hurry us. Would def recommend him.

    Ms OT, July 2018

  • Mr Pringle was very honest and to the point about everything. He explained regarding costs as I am self funding.
    I was very happy with the treatment I received and the care I was given

    Mrs SB, Sept 2108

  • Mr Pringle is very patient and put me at ease. He is a good listener.

    Name withheld, Sept 2018

  • Mr Pringle was very professional, polite, thorough and gave the necessary time to discuss any queries. Gave re-assurance to arrange an appointment in the future should there be any further issues.

    Name withheld, Sept 2018