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This epidemiological investigation aims to measure the prevalence of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) in the general population using the Rome II criteria and to evaluate the medical management including treatments and the impact of IBS on patient life.A nationally representative sample of 20 000 French subjects, aged 18 years and over, were interviewed by SOFRES (French Public Opinion Poll Institute) in May 2001. In a second phase (June/July 2001), a 48-question self-administered questionnaire was given to the subjects who have been selected during the first phase as suffering from IBS (Rome II criteria).The prevalence of IBS was 4.7% (confidence interval, 4.36–5.04% with 5% risk) with a predominance in women (5.7% versus 3.7%, P< 0.01). The abdominal pain was often longstanding (> 5 years, 50%), intense (43%) and nocturnal (35%). During the most recent painful episode the levels of associated transit problems were almost equally divided between diarrhoea (36%), constipation (29%) and alternate episodes of both (31%). Apart from pain, bloating was given as the most frequent (73%) and most troublesome (24%) symptom. Since the onset, 80% of subjects with IBS had consulted a doctor (90% consulted a general physician, 57% a gastroenterologist, 50% both) and of these, 80% consulted within the previous 12 months. Sixty-seven per cent of subjects underwent additional investigations since the start of their illness (average of 3.4 examinations per patient examined: colonoscopy, 34.1%; laboratory tests, 34%; and abdominal ultrasound, 27.7%). Over the previous 12 months, 8% of the subjects had been admitted to hospital (average length of stay, 6.6 days), 11% of employed subjects had to take time off, 93% of subjects had taken prescribed medication (87%), but 43% of people thought it was ineffective. The effect on daily life was considerable (score, 6.2/10; close to the score for flu, 7/10). Two-thirds of the individuals changed their diet; 54% said it affected their social life and 29% their professional life. Seventy-four per cent of patients trusted their doctor, with a satisfaction index of 63%, but 45% of patients would like to have more information on IBS.This study confirmed that the Rome II criteria detected IBS with a prevalence of 4.7%. The recruited subjects had severe symptoms (frequency, intensity and duration) that had a considerable effect on their daily life. The high level of referrals and initial consultations in all categories and the patient's attitudes towards the illness and its treatment emphasize the relative ineffectiveness of care for patients suffering from IBS.