Our goal was to determine the value of echo-planar diffusion-weighted MR imaging in detecting the presence of primary acquired and residual cholesteatoma. One hundred patients were evaluated by preoperative magnetic resonance (MR) imaging with diffusion-weighted MR imaging. The patient population consisted of a first group of 55 patients evaluated in order to detect the presence of a primary acquired cholesteatoma. In the second group, 45 patients were evaluated for the presence of a residual cholesteatoma 8-18 months after cholesteatoma surgery, prior to second-look surgery. Surgical findings were compared with preoperative findings on diffusion-weighted imaging (DWI). The sensitivity, specificity, positive and negative predictive values of both groups was assessed. In the group of primary surgery patients, hyperintense signal compatible with cholesteatoma was found in 89% of cases with a sensitivity, specificity, positive and negative predictive value for DWI of 81, 100, 100 and 40%, respectively. In the group of second-look surgery patients, only one of seven surgically verified residual cases was correctly diagnosed using DWI, with a sensitivity, specificity, positive and negative predictive values of 12.5, 100, 100 and 72%, respectively. These results confirm the value of DWI in detecting primary cholesteatoma, but show the poor capability of DWI in detecting small residual cholesteatoma.