Explainer: What is Pilonidal Disease?

Learn about the symptoms and causes of this painful, chronic disease

If you are reading this website, you are probably looking for a better way to treat Pilonidal Disease for you or a loved one. This chronic condition causes pain in the tailbone region, primarily in young men (though women and adults suffer too), from a regularly reoccurring painful skin and tissue infection.

Perhaps, you have already had surgery for a pilonidal abscess (often incorrectly referred to as a pilonidal cyst), and the procedure didn’t turn out quite as well as you or your surgeon had anticipated. Maybe you’ve been told that you need surgery for a chronic pilonidal abscess/sinus or a recurrence after surgery and you want to educate yourself about the best options.

The Sternberg Clinic

Dr. Jeffrey Sternberg

Dr. Jeffrey Sternberg, MD, FACS, FASCRS, is a highly skilled, board-certified surgeon best known for his innovative treatment of Pilonidal Disease. Often incorrectly called a pilonidal cyst, the condition is actually the result of an an abscess that forms below the skin causes reoccurring infection. 

Dr. Sternberg is a leading practitioner of the Cleft Lift procedure, a technique developed in the 1970s that he has perfected through his work at The Sternberg Clinic for Pilonidal Surgery in San Francisco where he advises patients from around the world on this difficult decision: what the best surgical option is for a chronic/recurrent pilonidal abscess/sinus, or an unhealed wound or recurrent pilonidal disease after one or several pilonidal surgeries?

The Cleft-Lift is a short outpatient surgical procedure that takes a few hours to complete and has a very low complication rate when performed by a surgeon experienced in the technique. Patients are on their feet the same day, and require about 10 days to recover on average. Most patients can return to strenuous activities like running and biking in just a few weeks or months.

Liz’s Story: A patient testimonial

We received a letter from a patient of The Sternberg Clinic named Liz, who successfully recovered from Pilonidal Disease after multiple failed surgeries. Read Liz’s story.

Related Reading: Pilonidal Surgery: Patient FAQ

Over the past century, many patients with Pilonidal Disease have received suboptimal care, as many medical practitioners (including surgeons) don’t fully understand the root cause of pilonidal disease and also underestimate its impact on the lives of young patients.

Many doctors continue to believe that the cause of pilonidal disease is a congenital cyst (i.e., a cyst present from birth). This is not true. There is no cyst. Pilonidal disease is simply an infection under the skin between one’s buttock cheeks that typically arises from a trapped hair or fiber. It’s an acquired disease. It’s challenging to treat because of where it develops, the moist airless environment there, and the repeated pressure of sitting, and motion in the region.


Pilonidal Podcast: Dr. Sternberg explores the disease in 3 min. or less.
Ep. 1: What is Pilonidal Disease?

Hosted by Dr. Jeffrey Sternberg, MD, FACS, FASCRS

Founder of The Sternberg Clinic for Pilonidal Surgery in San Francisco, California

Educating Patients and Doctors

The Sternberg Clinic is on a mission to educate patients and the medical community. Many surgeons choose to treat pilonidal patients with disfiguring, wide-excisional operations hoping to resect the elusive cyst.

The problem is that many of these radical operations: 1) don’t work and lead to a recurrence and, 2) even if they eventually fix the problem, have a long recovery which is often miserable for the patient and his/her caregiver. When these operations fail they often make the problem worse. Moreover, few surgeons want to tackle pilonidal disease. Even fewer care to operate on patients that have failed surgery from other surgeons.  

When I started my physicians fellowship in 1999, I was reluctant to treat a patient with Pilonidal Disease. The turning point came when I expressed this concern to an attending physician who knew of “a better way” to treat the disease, and he invited me to join him for cases.

Through visits with father-son doctors John and Tom Bascom, I learned that the Cleft Lift technique made sense and worked. I performed hundreds of surgeries over the following decades and increasingly difficult cases obliged me to innovate variations that have led to my current technique. I now have a better way to cure pilonidal disease: I have extensive experience more than 1,500 cases since 2002, curing almost 100% of patients.

So why do I want to operate on patients with difficult pilonidal problems? 1) I truly am gratified when I improve a patient’s quality of life, and 2) the operation that I perform cures almost every patient, even when they’ve failed prior surgical attempts.

I am committed to helping cure pilonidal patients of their disease, and, in the long run, wish to change the way other doctors treat patients with pilonidal disease so these patients have access to reliable and appropriate care.

Dr. Jeffrey Sternberg, MD, FACS, FASCRS

Pilonidal disease overview 

Pilonidal disease (pie-low-NIE-dul), a chronic infection of the skin and underlying tissue near the tailbone, is a common disorder. It typically affects people in their teens, 20’s, and 30’s and often disappears by the age of forty. In its most severe form, pilonidal disease can be very debilitating, causing daily discomfort and limiting activity. Most operations reported to cure the disease are not reliable. Many sufferers of pilonidal disease become discouraged in their search for curative treatments as many surgeons, and medical practitioners continue to misadvise patients to consider disfiguring procedures with high recurrence rates.

This website provides basic information about pilonidal disease and its treatment. The most reliable and successful surgical treatment to date, the ‘cleft lift procedure’ is discussed in detail.

Pilonidal Surgery

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

1) Primary disease with multiple pits,

2) Primary disease with large pits,

3) Persistent or recurrent disease,

4) An unhealed wound after one or several pilonidal surgeries

To schedule a consultation please call our office.  If you live far from San Francisco and wish to schedule a consultation and surgery, please go to the Traveling for Surgery page for instructions.

Causes and symptoms of pilonidal disease

A nest of hairs

Pilonidal disease is not a cyst (an epithelial-lined sac), it is an abscess (a cavity filled with infected fluid and/or debris). The fluid, if present, is infected fluid called purulent material or pus, and the debris is usually loose hair.  In fact, pilonidal means “nest of hairs.” Around half of all pilonidal abscesses contain hairs. The hairs are hairs from the cleft midline that have pulled inwards from their root end (not ingrown) through dilated, destroyed hair follicles, or shed from other parts of the body (such as the scalp, back, etc.) and then become lodged in an unusually deep cleft near the tailbone. They are not ingrown hairs. This is why shaving the affected area is usually of little help.

Symptoms of pilonidal disease

Pilonidal disease can cause a variety of symptoms which may happen all the time, may come and go, may be mild, or may be severe. These symptoms include:

Be aware that most physicians are not trained to differentiate pilonidal disease from a perianal abscess or buttock abscess. If you suspect that you have pilonidal disease, it is important to consult a Colon and Rectal Surgeon for a proper exam.

Like the tip of an iceberg, Pilonidal Disease can fool parents, patients, and even surgeons. Sometimes, a case that appears small and benign harbors a large abscess under the surface as in this case as seen in the photo below.

Why there?

Pilonidal disease affects a very specific area of the body called the natal cleft or intergluteal cleft. Colloquially it’s the “butt crack”. The natal cleft is the 5-9 inch valley under the tailbone that is hidden by one’s buttock cheeks when standing. It is bracketed above by the top of the buttock sulcus (crease) and below, by the anus. The coccyx (tailbone) lies within it, and the edges (marked by the dashed lines) are the point of contact of the buttock cheeks when one stands.

Formation of abscesses

The abscess is believed to start when skin in the natal cleft stretches during sitting, breaking hair follicles and opening a pore or ‘pit.’  As one stands up, the movement causes a suction that pulls the original hair of the follicle or loose hair inwards from its root end (hair have barbs that prevent the apex of the hair from inserting) and debris into the now open ‘pore/pit’. Once lodged, the hairs can cause irritation if not expelled by the body or removed in time. Chronic infection can develop in this hidden area and lead to the formation of tunnels (sinuses) from under the skin to areas outside the natal cleft. Additional ‘pits’ can then develop leading to persistent or recurrent symptoms of pain, swelling, drainage, and even odor. Often, the pit’s become intermittently plugged with Keratin (a protein from the outer layer of skin), which encloses the infection, making it worse. Many people with pilonidal disease have or develop ‘divots’ in their natal clefts, which further encourage the deposition of debris and the formation of more ‘pits’.

Risk factors for developing pilonidal disease

The deep clefts of people with pilonidal disease

Pilonidal disease typically develops in people with very deep natal clefts that have poor air circulation as a result of the deep cleft. These deep clefts remain moist and airless – a perfect environment for infections. The only way to see pilonidal disease in these individuals is to part the buttock cheeks enough to visualize the pores within the valley of the natal cleft. The sinus opening, if present, is usually visible at the top and to one side of the cleft. Many healthcare practitioners mistake the sinus opening as the cause of the disease, but it’s the result of the disease, which is caused by the dilated pores.

Age and pilonidal disease

Pilonidal disease is common among young people. The disease most often affects teens and young adults.  For unclear reasons, many, but not all, affected people will stop having symptoms of untreated disease by their 40s.

When pilonidal disease affects normal life

Pilonidal disease or failed surgical procedures aimed at treating the disease can lead to many months or years of discomfort, disability, and suffering. Due to severe symptoms of pain or discharge, affected individuals may have trouble sitting for long periods of time, miss school or work, refrain from sports, or avoid close contact with friends.  Embarrassment from the condition may prevent individuals from using common locker rooms or wearing a bathing suit. Unsuccessful surgical procedures may force individuals to remain at home and pack wounds in areas they can’t see or easily reach.

Here is a chapter on pilonidal disease that Dr. Sternberg wrote in a prominent surgical textbook. Click here to read it.

This Chapter (pp 293-301) was published in Current Surgical Therapy 11/E, 2014, (ISBN 9781455740079), Cameron et al Copyright Elsevier.

Meet Your Surgeon, Dr. Jeffrey Sternberg

After many years performing major abdominal operations including open and laparoscopic resections for colon cancer, rectal cancer, Crohn’s disease, and Ulcerative colitis, I have chosen to concentrate my efforts in a few highly specialized areas of surgery where I feel I can make the greatest positive impact on patients.

Meet my Office Staff