Who is a “candidate” for a cleft lift?

When patients see a surgeon and ask about the cleft lift procedure this becomes an important question. We use the term “candidate”, but this is not an election! Often, surgeons will indicate to a patient that they are not “candidates” for the operation. The translation is that they do not think it is the best procedure for the patient, and don’t (or won’t) perform it.

Although when looking at the medical world from the outside, there often is the impression that medicine and surgery are completely scientific, and statements like this are absolute, sadly this is not the case. The appropriateness of the cleft lift procedure is very different from surgeon to surgeon, and they are giving you their opinion based on their particular research, training, and skills – as it applies to your situation. There are times when surgeons feel that a patient’s situation is not severe enough to warrant a cleft lift, or too severe to warrant a cleft lift. As a consumer of medical care, these recommendations need to be taken as opinions, not facts, and it is quite appropriate to seek alternative opinions.

At my pilonidal clinic, we perform the cleft lift on the entire spectrum of pilonidal disease, ranging from very minimal to the most difficult cases in the country. I understand that this is extremely controversial within the surgical world. There are many surgeons who feel that the cleft lift should be reserved for patients who have already failed other operations.

Here are a few facts about this:

  • Any operation involves time, cost, anxiety, and discomfort, even the ones called “minimally invasive“, and laser surgery for pilonidal disease. My feeling is that if you are going to have an operation, you should at least have the choice of the one with the highest success rate.
  • A recent meta-analysis of ~90,000 patients reported in the surgical literature came up with data on various operations (keeping in mind that in general, surgeons only report their data if they think that they are doing a very good job.) The failure/recurrence rates at 120 months in this study are:
    • Open excision: 19.9% failure
    • Closed excision: 32% failure
    • Limberg flap: 11.4% failure
    • Pit Picking: 15.6% failure (at 60 months)
    • Cleft lift or Karydakis flaps: 2.7% failure
  • Not every surgeon knows how to perform the cleft lift procedure, or does it so rarely that they are uncomfortable recommending it to any category of patients, and are reluctant to refer patients to the regional experts.
  • In our clinic I am so concerned with the actual success of the procedure, I have kept data on every cleft lift I’ve performed since 1993, and have published that data.
  • Some surgeons say that the infection rate with the cleft lift is very high. That is not true, and in my paper I demonstrate an overall infection rate of 2.6%.

The take-away from this discussion is that if you are looking for the highest chance of a “one and done” type of procedure, seek out the experts in this field and ask THEM if you are a “candidate”!

Pilonidal Disease: Can I Avoid Surgery?

Will this go away by itself? Is it manageable with non-surgical care?

This is a commonly asked question. Although I am a surgeon, I realize that surgery is not for everyone, and nobody is really excited about having an operation if there is another option. Drainage of a painful, infected, abscess (lancing, I&D) is often an emergency and is very obviously necessary, other operations are elective – meaning that a patient has a chance to think about it, weigh the pros and cons, and decide if that is the route they want to proceed.

The decision is easy if the pilonidal disease is painful, embarrassing, disruptive and depressing, and it’s clearly time to do something about it. On the other hand, for other patients surgery is not really the route they want to go. There can be various reasons for this:

  • The symptoms aren’t that bad.
  • Their philosophy that surgery is only a last resort.
  • Financial considerations.
  • Concern regarding the cosmetic change.
  • General fear of surgery and hospitals.
  • Lack of a qualified specialist nearby.

These are all reasons to step back and see if there is a non-surgical approach that will work. It is a rare situation in which pilonidal disease becomes life-threatening. For various reasons, there isn’t very robust data regarding the recurrence rate of pilonidal problems. So, I can’t really tell you that if you had one abscess, what the chances are that you will have another. In a specific situation, if I can evaluate the anatomy, I may be able to predict whether future problems are expected or not. But, if you are not seeing a pilonidal specialist, it will be hard for you to come to any conclusion on your own.

These are situations where future problems are very likely:

  • Multiple, enlarged midline pores or actual open wounds.
  • A very deep gluteal cleft. Sometimes this is apparent, because it takes some strength to spread the buttocks apart to see the base. Or, in other situations, the crease seems to open up easily when prone, but folds when standing. Brownish discoloration (hyperpigmentation) of the skin on either side of the cleft is a clue that this is a problem.
  • Multiple abscesses.
  • The presence of a sinus.

Sometimes after an abscess has been drained, there are no visible abnormalities. This is the kind of situation where it is not clear how much a problem it will be in the future. This web page discusses that situation.

But, if you are dealing with any of the situations described above, it is possible to get along without surgery, but the pilonidal disease is going to be an intermittent long term problem and, contrary to some rumors, will not just disappear after age 40.

Diligent attempts at hygiene, antiseptics, dressings and at times antibiotics may help minimize symptoms, but most likely won’t completely eradicate the problem. A discussion of home remedies can be found here. However, if a patient’s issue is that surgery is not feasible now because of finances or other obligations, some of these home remedies may make delay less painful.

In general my recommendation is that the best approach is to proceed with surgery at some point, and the sooner this is treated, the sooner patients can get on with their lives. I believe the cleft-lift operation by an experienced pilonidal surgeon is the best combination of high success rate coupled with ease of recovery. Contact us if this is something you would like to explore.

Welcome to “Bizarro World”

Getting the right advice at the right time

Those of you old enough to have read Superman Comics may remember the Bizarro World where everything was the opposite of the real world. Sometimes our patients feel like they have entered Bizarro World when they come to our clinic because of the vast difference between the instructions and information I give my patients, as opposed to what they have been told in the past. The instructions I give are what I have found works for my patients with the operation I perform. So, I can’t say that the advice patients have received elsewhere by other surgeons is wrong, but I can say that they don’t apply to my cleft-lift patients.

Here are some examples:

  • We encourage sitting immediately after surgery! I believe that this is actually beneficial for the incision, since it opens up the bottom of the cleft and allows air circulation. I have never seen a situation in one of my post op patients where sitting has caused a problem.
  • We do not recommend any type of hair removal. Once the cleft is flattened, hairs should not be an issue anymore.
  • We close the wound. No open wounds, no packing, no complicated dressing changes.
  • We use dissolving sutures. The large, external, sutures that many surgeons use do not guarantee that the wound will stay together; they leave permanent, unsightly stitch marks; and can be very uncomfortable.
  • We allow showering the day after surgery. I would rather have the area around the incision clean. Letting the shower run on the incision and drain has not caused any problems in my patients.
  • We recommend patients go back to fairly normal activity, as long as it is gentle on the incision. We do not recommend any period of immobility.
  • We allow lying directly on the incision when sleeping. It is OK to sleep in any position that is comfortable.
  • We never use silver nitrate on wounds. It is a caustic chemical that does more damage than good.

These instructions are often met with incredulous expressions, since they contradict all previous instructions – but this protocol works very well. I am trying to make recovery from the cleft-lift as simple as possible, and get my patients back to normal activity as soon as possible. There are certain instructions I give that are very important to follow, and this is all complicated enough without adding restrictions that aren’t necessary.

The success rate in our clinic of ~98% primary healing speaks for itself as far as the wisdom of this protocol, and our patient’s responses to our post op instructions have been positive, as you can see from the answers to our survey below.

This is what our patients feel about the activity restrictions after cleft-lift surgery.