A contentious issue is whether irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) patients have abnormal rectal motor physiology. Our aim was to determine whether IBS patients have abnormal rectal responses to low (urge producing) or high (pain producing) distension pressures. The IBS patients and healthy controls underwent five series of isobaric rectal distensions to examine volume-pressure relationships and rectal accommodation: (i) ascending stepwise distensions terminating upon report of moderate pain, (ii) phasic and (iii) tonic distensions at a single low pressure producing a moderate sensation of urge to defecate (iv) phasic and (v) tonic distensions at a single high pressure producing a moderate pain sensation. The IBS patients demonstrated a lower rectal volume-pressure ratio during repetitive single-pressure phasic distensions, and a slower rate of rectal accommodation during low (but not high) pressure tonic distensions. However, dynamic compliance during ascending stepwise distensions and the change in rectal volume during tonic distension were not significantly different from controls. Rectal abnormality was readily demonstrated by determining the volume-pressure ratio using a small number of repetitive single-pressure distensions, supporting the hypothesis that IBS patients have abnormal rectal motor physiology. We propose that a peripheral neuromuscular substrate may contribute to the pathogenesis of IBS.