Controversy exists as to whether the hypertensive lower esophageal sphincter (HLES) represents a clinical motility disorder of the esophagus or is merely the right-sided expression of a normal distribution curve. In the present study we describe 16 patients with HLES, defined as a lower esophageal sphincter (LES) pressure of greater than or equal to 40 mm Hg (mean + 3 SD of controls) with normal peristalsis. All of the patients suffered from chest pain and nine from dysphagia. Delayed bolus transit at the gastroesophageal junction was demonstrated in four patients by radiography. Manometric studies showed that during swallowing the LES residual pressures were significantly greater (9.2 +/- 5.0 mm Hg) than observed in normal controls (1.8 +/- 2.2 mmHg) (mean +/- 1 SD). However, the percent LES relaxation in patients did not differ significantly from controls. Clinical improvement was associated with pharmacological or mechanical reduction of resting LES pressure with an accompanying fall in the nadir pressure. These observations suggest that HLES may have clinical and pathophysiological significance and that evidence for the entity should be sought during manometric studies in the clinical laboratory.