This article discusses a cognitive–behavioural therapy (CBT) approach to the treatment of medically unexplained symptoms that is based on the ‘five areas’ model of CBT. We describe a typical course of therapy and some of the common problems encountered during treatment. Emphasis is placed on the practical management of these conditions, and the focus is on symptoms as opposed to cause. We believe that this approach is widely applicable and could be used in a large range of settings to tackle these debilitating conditions. In writing this article we intended to provide an overview of patients with medically unexplained symptoms. The article would be of interest to staff within liaison psychiatry departments looking to set up a medically unexplained symptoms service and general psychiatry teams who may have contact with patients presenting with somatic symptoms. Psychiatric teams without access to a liaison department may also find this article interesting.