The irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) remains a therapeutic challenge in part because of the limited understanding of the pathophysiology. The placebo response rate varies in randomized controlled trials from 20 to 70%, and can persist for up to at least 1 year. It is contentious whether dietary fibre and bulking agents relieve the symptoms of IBS; constipation probably improves. Anticholinergic and antispasmodic agents are of questionable benefit in IBS despite positive meta-analyses of poor quality trials. A meta-analysis concluded that the tricyclic antidepressants were superior to placebo in IBS, although the individual trial results were variable. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors are of uncertain benefit. Laxatives are used for constipation but probably poorly control the IBS symptom complex. Loperamide is superior to placebo in improvement of diarrhoea but not abdominal pain in IBS. Tegaserod is a well- tolerated aminoguanidine indole derivative of serotonin that is a partial 5HT4-receptor agonist with prokinetic properties; a therapeutic gain over placebo of 5% to 15% has been observed in constipation-predominant IBS in females. Alosetron is a 5HT3-receptor antagonist that is efficacious in females with diarrhoea-predominant IBS, with a 12% to 17% therapeutic gain; the risk of ischaemic colitis is 1 in 350, with very severe constipation occurring in about 1 in 1000. Optimizing study design remains a challenge in IBS. New visceral analgesic and motility modifying agents, as well as anti-inflammatory agents are in trials, and hopefully additional efficacious therapeutic options for patients with IBS will soon emerge.