The aim of the study was to further elucidate the pathophysiology of irritable bowel syndrome and its subgroups by examining and comparing alterations in small bowel motility, specifically phase II and phase III components of the migrating motor complex. Prolonged recordings of interdigestive small bowel motility were obtained during both diurnal and nocturnal periods in 20 patients with irritable bowel syndrome--10 with predominant constipation and 10 with predominant diarrhea--and in 10 healthy subjects. Diurnal amplitude (mean +/- SD) of phase III activity fronts was lower (P less than 0.05) in constipation-predominant patients (16.3 +/- 3.1 mm Hg) than in diarrhea-predominant patients (20.2 +/- 3.1) or controls (20.9 +/- 2.7). Similar findings were observed nocturnally. Phase III cycle length was also significantly prolonged diurnally in constipation-predominant patients when compared to the other groups. In the diarrhea-predominant group repetitive and rapidly propagated bursts of contractions were observed in eight patients, and this pattern occupied a significantly greater proportion of phase II motor activity than in controls. These alterations in phase II and in phase III components of the migrating motor complex suggest that both local (enteric) and more central mechanisms may operate to produce intestinal dysmotility in the irritable bowel syndrome and that these mechanisms differ according to the predominant alteration of bowel habit.