• brain–gut axis;
  • central and peripheral sensitization;
  • functional gastrointestinal disorders;
  • psychosocial factors;
  • visceral hypersensitivity;
  • visceral pain

Abstract  Visceral hypersensitivity (perception of gastrointestinal sensory events at a lower-than-normal threshold) is considered to be an important pathophysiological mechanism in the development of functional gastrointestinal disorders (FGIDs), such as irritable bowel syndrome, non-cardiac chest pain and functional dyspepsia. These disorders are associated with significant health care and socioeconomic costs due to factors such as repeated visits to consultants, hospitalizations and work absenteeism. Despite the presence of extensive evidence linking visceral hypersensitivity and FGIDs, the mechanism(s) underlying visceral hypersensitivity has not been fully elucidated. Suggested hypotheses include sensitization of afferent neurones, both at the level of the enteric and the (afferent) autonomic nervous system (peripheral sensitization), sensitization of spinal cord dorsal horn neurones (central sensitization) and psychosocial factors/psychiatric comorbidity influencing the processing of afferent signals at the level of the brain. Importantly, these hypotheses may be complementary rather than mutually exclusive. However, the degree to which each of these mechanisms contributes to the overall perception of visceral pain, and therefore the generation of symptoms, still remains unclear. This article discusses the mechanisms that may underlie visceral hypersensitivity, with reference to FGIDs. Understanding these mechanisms is essential in order to improve the diagnosis and treatment of patients with these disorders.