Abstract Motor and sensory dysfunction of the gut are present in a subset of patients with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Recent studies have demonstrated the presence of a recto-colonic inhibitory reflex in healthy humans. It is not known whether this reflex exists in IBS. We studied rectal compliance, perception and the recto-colonic reflex by measuring volume responses of the descending colon to rectal distentions by barostat in 26 IBS patients and 13 healthy controls under both fasting and postprandial conditions. In the fasting state, rectal distention inhibited colonic tone and phasic motility to a similar extent in health and IBS. After a meal, rectal distention inhibited colonic tone and phasic motility to a lesser degree (P < 0.05) in IBS than health. Under postprandial but not fasting conditions, rectal distentions of increasing intensity were associated with higher pain scores in IBS than in health. Rectal distention inhibits tonic and phasic motility of the descending colon in healthy controls and in IBS patients. Postprandially this recto-colonic inhibitory reflex is impaired and attenuated in IBS patients compared with controls. These findings point to an altered reflex function in IBS and have implications for pathophysiology and therapy.