The multicomponent nature of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) has provided a challenging environment in which to develop successful treatments. A combination of pharmacological and non-pharmacological approaches is used to combat this problem, and an overview of these approaches and their possible future direction is given. Bronchodilators are the mainstay of COPD treatment and can be combined with inhaled corticosteroids for greater efficacy and fewer side effects. A new generation of pharmacotherapeutic agents, most notably phosphodiesterase-4 inhibitors, which are already in the advanced stages of clinical development, and leukotriene B4 inhibitors (in early clinical development), may shape future treatment as further insight is gained into the pathological mechanisms underlying COPD. Non-pharmacologic treatments for COPD include long-term oxygen therapy (LTOT), nasal positive pressure ventilation (nPPV), pulmonary rehabilitation and lung-volume-reduction surgery (LVRS). Apart from smoking cessation, LTOT is the only treatment to date which has been shown to modify survival rates in severe cases; thus its role in COPD is well defined. The roles of nPPV and LVRS are less clear, though recent progress is reported here. In the future, it will be important to establish the precise value of the different treatments available for COPD--evaluating both clinical and physiological endpoints and using the data to more accurately define candidate patients accordingly. The challenge will be to develop this base of knowledge in order to shape future research and allow clinicians to deliver tailored COPD management programmes for the growing number of patients afflicted with this disease.