Nonspecific esophageal motility disorder (NEMD) is a vague category used to include patients with poorly defined esophageal contraction abnormalities. The criteria include "ineffective" contraction waves, ie, peristaltic waves that are either of low amplitude or are not transmitted. The aim of this study was to identify the prevalence of ineffective esophageal motility (IEM) found during manometry testing and to evaluate esophageal acid exposure and esophageal acid clearance (EAC) in patients with IEM compared to those with other motility findings. We analyzed esophageal manometric tracings from 600 consecutive patients undergoing manometry in our laboratory following a specific protocol from April 1992 through October 1994 to identify the frequency of ineffective contractions and the percentages of other motility abnormalities present in patients meeting criteria for NEMD. Comparison of acid exposure and EAC was made with 150 patients who also had both esophageal manometry and pH-metry over the same time period. Sixty-one of 600 patients (10%) met the diagnostic criteria for NEMD. Sixty of 61 (98%) of these patients had IEM, defined by at least 30% ineffective contractions out of 10 wet swallows. Thirty-five of these patients also underwent ambulatory esophageal pH monitoring. Patients with IEM demonstrated significant increases in both recumbent median percentage of time of pH <4 (4.5%) and median distal EAC (4.2 min/episode) compared to those with normal motility (0.2%, 1 min/episode), diffuse esophageal spasm (0%, 0.6 min/episode), hypertensive LES (0%, 1.8 min/episode), and nutcracker esophagus (0.4% 1.6 min/episode). Recumbent acid exposure in IEM did not differ significantly from that in patients with systemic scleroderma (SSc) for either variable (5.4%, 4.2 min/episode). We propose that IEM is a more appropriate term and should replace NEMD, giving it a more specific manometric identity. IEM patients demonstrate a distinctive recumbent reflux pattern, similar to that seen in patients with SSc. This finding indicates that there is an association between IEM and recumbent GER. Whether IEM is the cause or the effect of increased esophageal acid exposure remains to be determined.