Although the nutcracker esophagus, characterized by high amplitude peristaltic contractions with mean distal amplitude greater than 180 mm Hg, is the most common esophageal motility disorder associated with noncardiac chest pain, little is known about its natural history. Therefore, we reviewed the manometric tracings of 23 patients with the nutcracker esophagus who had an average of 4.6 studies during a mean period of 32 months. Ten age-matched volunteers with normal baseline manometry who had undergone multiple studies (mean 5.8) over a mean time span of 32 months served as controls. In the 17 nutcracker patients with three or more motility studies, the variability of mean distal amplitudes between studies was 41.9% +/- 4.1 (+/- SE) compared to 27.0% +/- 3.3 for the control subjects (p less than 0.01). Highest distal pressures were noted during the first study in 11 of 17 patients (65%) compared to two of 10 controls (20%). The consistency of the diagnosis of nutcracker esophagus varied considerably: four patients always had high amplitude pressures, three patients only had the nutcracker diagnosis on the initial study, and 10 patients intermittently had pressures in the nutcracker range. Overall, these 17 patients had the diagnosis of the nutcracker esophagus confirmed on only 54% of subsequent studies. Changes in motility patterns were intermittently seen in six of 23 patients: one diffuse spasm and five nonspecific motility disorders. None of the control subjects developed high amplitude contractions or changed their motility pattern on serial testing. The possible pathophysiological implications of the changing faces of the nutcracker esophagus are discussed.