Treating Pilonidal Disease with Surgery

When is surgery an option?

Surgery is only appropriate for individuals who are persistently affected by pilonidal disease, and those who have had complications of procedures used to treat symptomatic disease.  Irritation or pain by the tailbone, persistent drainage, and recurrent abscesses are all indications for an appropriate surgical procedure.

Why ‘Conventional’ Surgery For Pilonidal Disease is Obsolete

Despite the apparent simplicity, pilonidal disease often frustrates both patients and their surgeons because the disease often comes back.

The most commonly performed procedures for pilonidal disease, which I will term conventional surgery, involves a wide excision of the affected area of skin and underlying fatty tissue, and:

  • Re-closing the wound in the midline, or
  • Suturing the edges of the wound open (marsupialization).

Pilonidal disease is poorly understood by many surgeons.  They fail to appreciate that the deep cleft is the cause of the disease. These surgeons often remove too much skin and deep tissue and leave large defects that further deepen the cleft.  Conventional operations can create large, disfiguring wounds that require labor-intensive postoperative care.  Unfortunately, these sub-optimal operations have become the so-called ‘standard of care’.

Removing large amounts of tissue is unnecessary since the cause of pilonidal disease is the deep valley of the natal cleft.  Because there is no ingrown hair/debris or cyst, a large excision is simply not needed. Furthermore, deep excision of the center of an airless, moist, diseased valley/cleft creates a wound that resists healing and increases the odds for recurrent disease.

What prevents healing with conventional surgery?

Pilonidal disease can respond to conventional surgery but often the remaining deep valley/cleft doesn’t allow enough air circulation for proper wound healing.  The deep valley also stays moist, which encourages bacterial growth and additional skin damage.  Because the cleft is still deep, the basic problem of trapping hair and debris in the pores of the cleft is still not fixed and pilonidal disease can happen again.  Recurrent pilonidal disease requires a definitive surgical procedure to reduce the depth of the natal cleft valley so it remains well-aerated, dry and shallow so that hairs and debris can’t be trapped.

Curing pilonidal disease with better engineering

Now that we know that the deep valley is the cause of the disease, why not fix the valley? The goals of an ideal procedure to treat chronic pilonidal disease (or non-healing wounds that result from failed pilonidal procedures) include:

  • Reduce the depth of the cleft to shallow the ‘airless’ valley
  • Remove only diseased areas and leave deeper, healthy tissue intact
  • Reshape the cleft to prevent ‘divots’
  • Make the incision outside the valley (lateralization) to allow the incision to heal in the open air
  • Leave a closed wound (no packing required)
  • Be performed on an outpatient basis
  • Cause little discomfort
  • Allow patients return to athletics within a few weeks
  • Be cosmetically acceptable

The Cleft-Lift Procedure is this ideal surgical procedure.

Pilonidal Surgery

This website should help you with this important decision: what is the best surgical option for...

1) primary disease with multiple,
2) primary disease with large pits,
3) persistent or recurrent disease,
4) an unhealed wound after one or several pilonidal surgeries

To schedule an appointment please call or email Jan at 415-668-0416

Dr. Jeffrey Sternberg

Dr Jeffrey Sternberg is a leading Colon and Rectal surgeon.Dr. Sternberg is active in the national leadership of the American Society of Colon and Rectal Surgeons and has been elected President of the Northern California Chapter of the American Society of Colon and Rectal Surgery. Extending his commitment to the care of patients with Inflammatory Bowel Disease, Dr. Sternberg serves on the Board of Directors of the Northern California Chapter of the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation of America.

Surgical Director, Center For Inflammatory Diseases
California Pacific Medical Center

Clinical Assistant Professor of Surgery
University of California San Francisco

Contact Dr. Sternberg through
San Francisco Surgical Medical Group.

Chrohns & Colitis Foundation

American Society of Colon and Rectal Surgeons