The aim of this study was to compare in vitro various methods for recording intestinal sensitivity and compliance. Relationships between volume and pressure were determined in segments of penrose tubing and pig gut ("artificial intestine') using pressure increments of 2 mmHg (0-24 mmHg). We tested two direct methods of distension of the entire segments (by syringe inflation and the Mayo barostat); we also used three different balloon devices for indirect distension (a 10 cm polyethylene barostat bag, a 10 cm latex condom balloon and a 6 cm latex condom balloon). Maximal distending diameters of the recording systems were measured by injecting from 0 to 160 mL of air. The elastic properties of the balloons were also tested by distensions in air and in rigid tubes. All recording systems accurately detected a lesser compliance of the penrose drain as compared to pig gut. In absolute terms, only the compliance measured with a polyethylene barostat bag distended with a syringe was not different from the compliance of the segment as measured directly. The bellows of our barostat and the latex balloons had significant intrinsic compliances which interfered with the recorded pressure-volume curves. On the other hand, highly compliant plastic bags recorded most faithfully the compliance of artificial gut and that of non-compliant rigid tubes. For comparable volumes of distension, external diameters were larger with the 6 cm latex balloon than with the 10 cm latex balloon or the 10 cm polyethylene barostat balloon. A polyethylene bag distended with a non-compliant air injector (syringe) reflected most accurately the pressure-volume relationships of tubular structures. The different maximal diameters assumed by the three distending devices may explain, in part, why lower volumes of distension are required to elicit symptoms with smaller distending balloons in vivo.