Visceral sensory neurons activate reflex pathways that control gut function and also give rise to important sensations, such as fullness, bloating, nausea, discomfort, urgency and pain. Sensory neurons are organised into three distinct anatomical pathways to the central nervous system (vagal, thoracolumbar and lumbosacral). Although remarkable progress has been made in characterizing the roles of many ion channels, receptors and second messengers in visceral sensory neurons, the basic aim of understanding how many classes there are, and how they differ, has proven difficult to achieve. We suggest that just five structurally distinct types of sensory endings are present in the gut wall that account for essentially all of the primary afferent neurons in the three pathways. Each of these five major structural types of endings seems to show distinctive combinations of physiological responses. These types are: 'intraganglionic laminar' endings in myenteric ganglia; 'mucosal' endings located in the subepithelial layer; 'muscular-mucosal' afferents, with mechanosensitive endings close to the muscularis mucosae; 'intramuscular' endings, with endings within the smooth muscle layers; and 'vascular' afferents, with sensitive endings primarily on blood vessels. 'Silent' afferents might be a subset of inexcitable 'vascular' afferents, which can be switched on by inflammatory mediators. Extrinsic sensory neurons comprise an attractive focus for targeted therapeutic intervention in a range of gastrointestinal disorders.