We studied the mechanism of belching with specific attention to the upper esophageal sphincter (UES) in 14 normal volunteers. Belching occurred by the following sequence of events: lower esophageal sphincter relaxation; gastroesophageal gas reflux, recorded manometrically as a gastroesophageal common cavity phenomenon; UES relaxation; esophagopharyngeal gas reflux; and restoration of intraesophageal pressure to baseline by a peristaltic contraction. Upper esophageal sphincter relaxations comparable to those associated with belches were induced by abrupt esophageal distention with air boluses. In contrast, fluid boluses injected into the midesophageal body either had no effect on UES pressure or increased UES pressure. Thus, the UES responded to esophageal body distention in two distinct ways: abrupt relaxation in response to air boluses and pressure augmentation in response to fluid boluses. Mucosal anesthesia did not alter the UES response to esophageal boluses of gas or liquid thereby making it unlikely that these substances are differentiated by a mucosal receptor. Rapid distention of the proximal esophagus with a cylindrical balloon (15 cm long) elicited UES relaxation. These findings suggest that the rapidity and spatial pattern of esophageal distention, rather than discrimination of the type of material causing the distention, determines whether or not UES relaxation occurs.