Cleft Lift Procedure

The Cleft-Lift Procedure

Utilizing the solid concepts of Dr. Karydakis’ work from the 1970s, Dr. John Bascom in Eugene, OR developed a variation of the operation called the cleft-lift. Since that time, the operation has evolved and improved to its current form. The cleft-lift is the procedure of choice for pilonidal disease requiring surgery, including:

  • Primary disease with multiple pits or large divots
  • Recurrent/Chronic disease
  • Open wounds resulting from surgical failure

How is the cleft-lift procedure done?

The cleft lift procedure is an outpatient surgical procedure that is intended to cure pilonidal disease.  The procedure involves the removal of scarred or pitted midline skin and skin from one side of the natal cleft.  Skin on the opposite side of the cleft is mobilized (freed from the underlying tissue) out past the edge of the natal cleft on the other side.  The deeper tissues of the now exposed buttocks cheeks are drawn and sewn together to ‘shallow the valley’ and to re-contour the cleft. The skin flap is then closed over the ‘shallowed’ valley and sutured to the side outside the cleft.  The new natal cleft is less deep and smoothly transitions down toward the anus.  Without the valley and divots, debris and hairs can’t collect.  The resulting wound is off to the side of the midline so it is exposed to air and can heal well.  A temporary drain is usually placed under the flap of skin to prevent the accumulation of fluid and is generally removed in one week.

The procedure takes around 1 hour.  It is performed under spinal or general anesthesia.  Patients experience minimal discomfort.  The wound is completely closed and no packing is required.

Most patients are allowed to return to full activity including athletics after the drain is removed.  After a cleft-lift procedure patients can wear bathing suits, walk in public locker rooms without embarrassment, and sit without pain.

How is cleft-lift different from other flap procedures?

The cleft lift is not like other flap procedures that either remove a lot of deep tissue resulting in disfiguring scars or that are so minimal that the cleft is not shallowed or re-contoured. Some surgeons make their incisions in the center of the deep, diseased area that makes the surgery hard to heal. Or, the flap incisions are often not moved enough to the side and get dragged back into the valley. If this happens, the valley is not reshaped and not shallowed. The persistent deep cleft again allows hair/debris to be trapped, leading to recurrent disease.

The cleft-lift removes only the scarred skin, does not remove deep tissue, and puts the incision sufficiently to the side so that it can heal well.  Also, the cleft-lift procedure is not disfiguring.  Most patients find the resulting scar cosmetically acceptable.  Data confirms that flap procedures, like cleft-lift, resulting in a true lateralized closure are the ‘gold standard’ in the treatment of pilonidal disease.  The Cochrane Collaboration review of the surgical treatment of pilonidal disease concluded, “off-midline closure should be the standard management when primary closure is the desired surgical option (”

The history of cleft reshaping procedures and the cleft-lift

Dr. George Karydakis first developed the concept of asymmetric excision for pilonidal disease and published his experience in 1973.  His operation demonstrated some important concepts: wounds off of the midline (where they are exposed to air) will heal, and a shallower cleft (because of his operation) helps prevent recurrent disease (shallow clefts don’t collect debris).  The original Karydakis operation required hospitalization and caused a moderate degree of discomfort.

Utilizing the solid concepts of Dr. Karydakis, Dr. John Bascom in Eugene, OR developed a variation of the operation called the cleft-lift. Since that time, the operation has evolved and improved to its current form. I had the opportunity to work with Dr. Bascom in 2002 and learned the basic concept of the cleft lift. A few years later, I had the opportunity to visit with Dr. John Bascom and his son Dr. Tom Bascom and observe them performing the cleft lift.  I was pleased to learn that we have each developed similar, more contemporary versions of the cleft-lift.  I continue to refer to the procedure as the ‘cleft-lift’ as a tribute to Dr. John Bascom, who has devoted a good portion of his professional life to this underappreciated disease.  His hard work, insight, and excellent judgment led to a well-tolerated and reproducible procedure that can be performed in an outpatient setting.


About early disease and acute abscesses

Acute pilonidal abscesses should be treated with prompt surgical drainage.  This is an office-base procedure and will yield prompt relief of pain.  Don’t worry!  The drainage procedure rarely causes significant discomfort and you should feel much better in hours.  Antibiotics may be prescribed after a drainage procedure, but rarely should be prescribed without draining the acute abscess.

Pit excision procedures

After healing from an acute abscess drainage, pits may become visible in the natal cleft midline.  What to do at this point in time is controversial.  Some surgeons recommend pit excision.  While this may help prevent future acute abscesses or progression of pilonidal disease to a chronic abscess, this strategy has not been well researched.  Sometimes, pit excision can lead to worse disease.

Each case should be treated individually.  Often, conservative and non-excisional care is the best approach.

If recurrent or persistent disease occurs then a cleft-lift can be performed with excellent outcomes.

Sometimes too, pilonidal disease skips the early stage and presents for the first time as advanced disease that affects a significant portion of the cleft. In this situation, cleft-lift surgery is probably necessary and can prevent worse disease in the future.


Description of the cleft-lift procedure

The following diagrams demonstrate the principles of the cleft-lift procedure. The body pictured here is lying on its stomach with buttocks up facing the viewer and pulled apart to show the valley of the natal cleft.

The outline represents the contours of the buttocks and anal area. The dashed line is the rim of the natal cleft and is marked while a patient is standing in a relaxed position.  When standing, these lines meet.  With the patient lying flat on his/her stomach and the buttock cheeks taped apart (as in these diagrams), the valley of the natal cleft is revealed.  The red dots within the natal cleft represent dilated pores or ‘pits’.  The red dot in the upper left corner is the sinus (tunnel) opening that is often associated with a chronic pilonidal abscess.

Buttocks drawn and area labeled

In the diagram below, an island of skin is marked to the left of the midline.  This purple area is excised and the flap is elevated off the right side of the cleft. Next, the deep tissues of the ‘valley/cleft’ are brought and sewn together (not shown) to accomplish three goals: 1) to make the cleft less shallow, 2) to re-contour the cleft to remove divots, and 3) to minimize tension on the flap. Minimizing tension on the flap is vital to preventing the incision from being dragged back into the cleft.  The arrows show the direction of flap advancement (across at the top and middle of the cleft, and rotated around the anus).

Cleft Lift diagram

Below is the final result. 

A passive drain (essentially a rubber band) is looped through a small hole in the lower portion of the incision and exits through a hole that is created in the upper portion of the coverage flap. The drain allows fluid to drain from under the skin flap so that it will stick to the underlying tissue. The drain is usually removed 9 days after surgery. If you are travelling a significant distance to have surgery, you will receive instructions so that you can easily remove the drain yourself.

Buttock-Diag-Complete-Pas-Drain cleft lift diagram final post op result

How do I take care of the drain?

A drain will be placed at the time of surgery. The drain looks like a thin rubber band. The purpose of the drain is to keep the 2 skin openings (one at the top of the flap and the other in the lower portion of the incision) from closing early after the procedure and to aide in wicking fluid from under the skin flap. You will receive instructions on how to take care of the drain at the surgery center or hospital. Also, please view the drain care video.

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