Determining which patients with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) are "refractory" is highly subjective. The duration, severity, and type of symptoms and a host of other epidemiologic and psychosocial factors play a role in this determination. Long duration of symptoms alone does not portray the severe IBS patient. Several studies have shown that patients concerned with pain rather than altered bowel habits (diarrhea and constipation) are more likely to be disabled by their disease. Pragmatically, refractory patients can be defined as those who fail to improve on multiple drug regimens and who have high health care utilization despite aggressive therapy. In some cases, psychosocial and psychiatric comorbidity can also contribute to an inability to improve despite reasonable medical management. Finally, IBS patients who are unhappy about their care and who have the unrealistic expectation of "cure" may become refractory. The key to dealing with so-called "refractory" IBS patients is to understand that their behaviors often relate to underlying needs that the patients may have difficulty communicating to the physician. Unfortunately, these patients are often labeled as "difficult," "unpleasant," or "crazy," and are often dismissed by their treating physicians. This leads to a continued cycle of pain, frustration, and health care over-utilization, with patients seeking the elusive "cure." Failure to understand these correlates leads to continued frustration and treatment failure, which unfortunately often characterizes the care of these patients.