The function of the small intestine is to a large degree mechanical, and it has the capability of deforming its shape by generating phasic (short-lasting) and tonic (sustained) contraction of the smooth muscle layers. The aim of this study was to obtain phasic and tonic stress-strain (normalized force-length) curves during distension of isolated rat jejunum and ileum (somewhat similar to the isometric length-tension diagram known from in vitro studies of muscle strips). We hypothesized that the circumferential stress-strain data depend on longitudinal stretch of the intestine. Intestinal segments were isolated from ten Wistar rats and put into an organ bath containing 37 degrees C aerated Krebs solution. Ramp distension was done on active and passive intestinal segments at longitudinal stretch ratios of 0, 10, and 20%. Ramp pressures from 0 to 7.5 cmH(2)O were applied to the intestinal lumen at each longitudinal stretch ratio. Passive conditions were obtained by adding the calcium antagonist papaverine to the solution. Total and passive circumferential stress and strain were computed from the length, diameter and pressure data and from the zero-stress state geometry. The active stress was defined as the total stress minus the passive stress. The total and passive circumferential stresses increased exponentially as a function of the strain. The amplitude of both the total and passive stress was biggest in the jejunum. The total circumferential stress decreased whereas the passive circumferential stress increased when the intestine was stretched longitudinally. Consequently, longitudinal stretching caused the active circumferential stress to decrease. The passive circumferential stress during longitudinal stretching increased more in the jejunum than in the ileum. Therefore, the active circumferential stress decreased most in the jejunum. In conclusion, the circumferential active-passive stress and strain depend on the longitudinal stretch and differs between the jejunum and ileum.