Manifestations of esophageal disease are present in up to 60% of patients with Zollinger-Ellison syndrome (ZES), although esophageal function has been studied in only a few patients and the prevalence of Barrett's mucosa is unknown in these patients. It is unclear whether the high prevalence of esophageal disease is related to gastric acid hypersecretion alone or to abnormalities of esophageal motility or lower esophageal sphincter (LES) function in addition. To address these issues in the present study esophageal function was evaluated prospectively in 92 consecutive patients with ZES (66 with active disease, 26 disease-free after curative resection) seen during a 1-year period after controlling acid hypersecretion. In the patients with active disease the mean basal acid output (BAO) was 33 +/- 3.0 mEq/h, the maximal acid output (MAO) was 56 +/- 4.0 mEg/h, fasting serum gastrin was 8,736 +/- 4,813 pg/ml and duration of disease prior to study was 12.5 +/- 2.0 years. At the time of manometry, gastric acid secretion was controlled in all patients and no patient had evidence of gastroesophageal reflux disease at upper gastrointestinal endoscopy. Esophageal manometry revealed normal motility in 85% of patients. Eleven percent had low LES pressures, and only 1% of patients had an elevated LES pressure. The frequency of Barrett's mucosa (3%) was similar to that found in the general population but much less than that reported in patients with idiopathic GERD. No correlation was noted between LES pressures or manometric abnormalities and the fasting serum gastrin, BAO, MAO or the presence or absence of multiple endocrine neoplasia type I or previous vagotomy. Esophageal manometric results and LES pressure were similar in disease-free patients and those with active ZES. In conclusion, these results suggest that hypergastrinemia or other disease-specific abnormalities are not contributing to the high incidence of esophageal disease in patients with ZES because esophageal function in patients with ZES is similar to normals. Specifically, motility disorders in patients with ZES occur in similar frequency to normals, and LES pressure is normal in most patients. Despite the high levels of acid secretion and prominence of symptoms, the occurrence of Barrett's mucosa was uncommon (3%) raising the possibility of additional protective mechanisms in patients with ZES.