Approximately 5-10% of patients with chronic kidney disease demonstrate hyporesponsiveness to erythropoiesis-stimulating agents (ESA), defined as a continued need for greater than 300 IU/kg per week erythropoietin or 1.5 mug/kg per week darbepoetin administered by the subcutaneous route. Such hyporesponsiveness contributes significantly to morbidity, mortality and health-care economic burden in chronic kidney disease and represents an important diagnostic and management challenge. The commonest causes of ESA resistance are non-compliance, absolute or functional iron deficiency and inflammation. It is widely accepted that maintaining adequate iron stores, ideally by administering iron parenterally, is the most important strategy for reducing the requirements for, and enhancing the efficacy of ESA. There have been recent epidemiologic studies linking parenteral iron therapy to an increased risk of infection and atherosclerosis, although other investigations have refuted this. Inflammatory ESA hyporesponsiveness has been reported to be improved by a number of interventions, including the use of biocompatible membranes, ultrapure dialysate, transplant nephrectomy, ascorbic acid therapy, vitamin E supplementation, statins and oxpentifylline administration. Other variably well-established causes of ESA hyporesponsiveness include inadequate dialysis, hyperparathyroidism, nutrient deficiencies (vitamin B12, folate, vitamin C, carnitine), angiotensin-converting enzyme inhibitors, angiotensin receptor blockers, aluminium overload, antibody-mediated pure red cell aplasia, primary bone marrow disorders, myelosuppressive agents, haemoglobinopathies, haemolysis and hypersplenism. This paper reviews the causes of ESA hyporesponsiveness and the clinical evidence for proposed therapeutic interventions. A practical algorithm for approaching the investigation and management of patients with ESA hyporesponsiveness is also provided.