There has been a longstanding controversy about the significance of intracavitary pressure gradients in hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM). It has been generally assumed that the gradient is the result of an 'obstruction' that impedes left ventricular outflow and which can be relieved by operative intervention. In the first decade after the discovery of HCM (1957-66), the site of 'obstruction' was thought to be a muscular sphincter or contraction ring in the submitral region of the left ventricle, and operations designed to emulate pyloromyectomy (for hypertrophic pyloric stenosis) were developed. Following a challenge to the existence of the 'contraction ring' and an alternative non-obstructive explanation of the pressure gradient, the site of 'obstruction' was translocated to a point of apposition between the anterior mitral leaflet and the interventricular septum, a result of systolic anterior motion (SAM) of the mitral valve. Despite the translocation of the site and mechanism of 'obstruction', the operation for 'relief of obstruction' has not changed significantly. The newer site of 'obstruction' has been challenged on the grounds that the ventricle is not demonstrably impeded in its emptying; when a gradient is provoked, the ventricle empties more rapidly and more completely than it does without a gradient. In addition to a non-obstructive explanation of the gradient, other phenomena thought to be indicative of 'obstruction' can be explained by rapid and complete emptying of the ventricle (cavitary obliteration). Since the morbidity and mortality of symptomatic HCM patients without pressure gradients may exceed that of patients with pressure gradients, it is suggested that 'obstruction' may be unimportant in the pathophysiology of HCM and attention should be focused on abnormal diastolic function and life threatening arrhythmias.