The mechanisms underlying abdominal pain perception in irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) are poorly understood. Intestinal mast cell infiltration may perturb nerve function leading to symptom perception. We assessed colonic mast cell infiltration, mediator release, and spatial interactions with mucosal innervation and their correlation with abdominal pain in IBS patients. IBS patients were diagnosed according to Rome II criteria and abdominal pain quantified according to a validated questionnaire. Colonic mucosal mast cells were identified immunohistochemically and quantified with a computer-assisted counting method. Mast cell tryptase and histamine release were analyzed immunoenzymatically. Intestinal nerve to mast cell distance was assessed with electron microscopy. Thirty-four out of 44 IBS patients (77%) showed an increased area of mucosa occupied by mast cells as compared with controls (9.2% +/- 2.5% vs. 3.3 +/- 0.8%, respectively; P < 0.001). There was a 150% increase in the number of degranulating mast cells (4.76 +/- 3.18/field vs. 2.42 +/- 2.26/field, respectively; P = 0.026). Mucosal content of tryptase was increased in IBS and mast cells spontaneously released more tryptase (3.22 +/- 3.48 pmol/min/mg vs. 0.87 +/- 0.65 pmol/min/mg, respectively; P = 0.015) and histamine (339.7 +/- 59.0 ng/g vs. 169.3 +/- 130.6 ng/g, respectively; P = 0.015). Mast cells located within 5 microm of nerve fibers were 7.14 +/- 3.87/field vs. 2.27 +/- 1.63/field in IBS vs. controls (P < 0.001). Only mast cells in close proximity to nerves were significantly correlated with severity and frequency of abdominal pain/discomfort (P < 0.001 and P = 0.003, respectively). Colonic mast cell infiltration and mediator release in proximity to mucosal innervation may contribute to abdominal pain perception in IBS patients.