Although bougienage is widely used to treat benign esophageal stricture, the rate of stricture recurrence and the long-term effectiveness of bougienage are unknown. We studied the natural history of esophageal stricture in 154 patients in whom bougienage was used as primary therapy. Dilatations were considered successful in terms of relief or major improvement of dysphagia in 84.5% of 103 patients followed 6 mo or longer (median, 26 mo). The risk of requiring esophageal dilatation after the initial episode was greatest in the first year of follow-up; thereafter, a smaller fraction of patients required dilatation each year. Forty-three percent of patients required no further dilatations, and a life-table analysis showed that 36% of patients would require no further dilatation during a projected 4-yr follow-up. The median frequency of subsequent dilatation was less than once a year. We were unable to identify any significant factors, such as initial severity of stricture, cause of stricture, presence of active esophagitis, or initial caliber of dilatation, that could predict the need for subsequent dilatation. Our results suggest that patients with benign strictures fall into two groups. In one group, the natural history was to improve or become asymptomatic after an initial series of dilatations, and only a small proportion eventually developed recurrent symptoms. The second group (46% of patients) required further dilatations to treat dysphagia during the first year of follow-up. Two-thirds of these patients needed regular dilatations in subsequent years. We conclude that bougienage is effective treatment for benign esophageal strictures, and should be utilized as primary therapy for most strictures.