Chronic symptoms of abdominal pain and discomfort are reported by patients with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and functional disorders of the gut, such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). It has recently been suggested that transient inflammatory mucosal events may result in long-lasting sensitization of visceral afferent pathways. To determine the effect of recurring intestinal tissue irritation on lumbosacral afferent pathways, and to identify a plausible mechanism that could account for the overlap in symptomatology between IBD and IBS, we compared rectal afferent mechanisms in patients with Crohn's disease (inflammation limited to the ileum) with those observed in patients with diarrhea-predominant IBS. Continuous volume ramp and phasic pressure step distension of a rectal balloon were performed in 9 healthy male control subjects, 12 male patients with isolated ileal Crohn's disease and 9 male patients with diarrhea-predominant IBS using an electronic visceral stimulation device. The response of rectal afferents to distension was evaluated by measuring thresholds for the perception of physiological (stool) and aversive (discomfort) sensations, viscerosomatic referral patterns, skin conductance responses, receptive relaxation, and rectoanal reflex responses. In response to slow ramp distension, thresholds for aversive sensations were significantly higher in Crohn's disease patients, but similar between the two other groups. In response to rapid phasic distension, IBS patients reported discomfort at lower distension pressures, while all other thresholds were similar between groups. Skin conductance responses to aversive distension were greatly reduced in Crohn's disease patients while IBS patients had greater responses when compared to normals. Changes in viscerosomatic referral patterns and receptive relaxation rate were similar in Crohn's disease and IBS patients. These findings demonstrate that chronic ileal inflammation is associated with increased thresholds for discomfort and greatly diminished systemic autonomic reflex responses. In contrast, IBS patients show lowered thresholds for discomfort associated with increased autonomic responses. The findings in Crohn's patients may result from descending bulbospinal inhibition of sacral dorsal horn neurons in response to chronic intestinal tissue irritation.