439 papers on the irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) were listed in the Index Medicus and FAMLI in the period from the beginning of 1985 to the end of 1990. From these 439 papers 58 research reports were selected for a literature study into new insights into the aetiology, diagnostics and therapy of IBS. After these research reports had been evaluated according to eight criteria, the relevance of the research results for general practice was assessed. Many studies had methodological flaws. Often no hypotheses had been formulated. Only one-third of the research reports addressed the question of the validity and reliability of the measuring instruments used. Most of the investigations involved a strongly selected research population. The aetiology of IBS remains obscure. The general practitioner can make the diagnosis of IBS himself using straightforward diagnostic methods. No specific form of therapy is effective in the case of IBS. The policy of physicians concerning patients with IBS will have to be directed towards helping them cope with chronic complaints for which there is no adequate explanation.