Background: Previous research suggests that sufferers of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) report a greater prevalence of sexually and physically abusive experiences than patients with organic gastrointestinal disorders and non-patient populations. This has led to suppositions that previous abusive experiences might predispose to the development of functional gastrointestinal disorders. This study aimed to investigate the hypothesis that the prevalence of previous abuse experiences in patients with functional bowel disorders (FBD) is greater than it is in patients with a painful organic bowel disorder and healthy control subjects. Methods: Fifty-three idiopathic constipation patients were compared with matched control groups of 50 IBS patients, 51 Crohn disease patients and 53 non-patient control subjects. Measures of previous abuse experiences were taken using a self-report questionnaire and a semistructured interview. Other questionnaires of psychological distress were also administered. Results: No significant differences were found between all four groups, both for measures of abuse and for psychological distress. However, patients who reported past abuse, irrespective of their FBD status, demonstrated significantly higher levels of current psychological distress. Conclusions: These results challenge the current assumption that past abuse experiences may be significant in the later presentation of functional bowel disorders, but suggest that previous abuse experience might be related to a general level of psychopathology.