Irritable bowel syndrome affects approximately 10-15% of the European population, although prevalence rates vary depending on the classification used and the country surveyed. This may be due to differences in patterns of medical care and diagnosis of the condition. Up to 70% of individuals with irritable bowel syndrome may not have been formally diagnosed. The disorder affects 1.5-3 times as many women as men and poses a significant economic burden in Europe, estimated at euro 700-euro 1600 per person per year. It also reduces quality of life and is associated with psychological distress, disturbed work and sleep, and sexual dysfunction. It is a chronic disorder, which affects many individuals for more than 10 years. Most patients are managed in primary care, although some are referred to gastroenterologists and other specialists. Patients with irritable bowel syndrome undergo more abdomino-pelvic surgery than the general population. We propose that a positive diagnosis of the condition may avoid the delay in diagnosis many patients experience. We conclude that, in Europe, there are significant unmet needs including lack of familiarity with irritable bowel syndrome, difficulties in diagnosis and lack of effective treatments for the multiple symptoms of the disorder. The development of pan-European guidelines for irritable bowel syndrome will benefit patients with this condition in Europe.