To evaluate therapies available for the treatment of irritable bowel syndrome, and provide consensus recommendations for their use, a total of 51 double-blind clinical trials using bulking agents, prokinetics, antispasmodics, alosetron, tegaserod and antidepressants were selected. The quality of studies was assessed using 5-point scale. Meta-analyses were performed on all studies, and on 'high-quality studies'. The efficacy of fibre in the global irritable bowel syndrome symptoms relief (OR: 1.9; 95% CI:1.5-2.4) was lost after exclusion of low-quality trials (OR: 1.4; 95% CI: 1.0-2.0, P = 0.06). When excluding the low-quality trials, an improvement of global irritable bowel syndrome symptoms with all antispasmodics (OR: 2.1; 95% CI:1.8-2.9) was maintained only for octylonium bromide, but on the basis of only two studies. Antidepressants were effective (OR: 2.6, 95% CI: 1.9-3.5), even after exclusion of low-quality studies (OR: 1.9, 95% CI: 1.3-2.7). Alosetron (OR: 2.2; 95% CI: 1.9-2.6) and tegaserod (OR: 1.4; 95% CI: 1.2-1.5) showed a significant effect in women. We recommend the use of tegaserod for women with irritable bowel syndrome with constipation and alosetron for women with severe irritable bowel syndrome with diarrhoea. Antidepressants can be beneficial for irritable bowel syndrome with diarrhoea patients with severe symptoms. Loperamide can be recommended in painless diarrhoea. Evidence is weak to recommend the use of bulking agents in the treatment of irritable bowel syndrome with constipation.