Although amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and its variants are readily recognised by neurologists, about 10% of patients are misdiagnosed, and delays in diagnosis are common. Prompt diagnosis, sensitive communication of the diagnosis, the involvement of the patient and their family, and a positive care plan are prerequisites for good clinical management. A multidisciplinary, palliative approach can prolong survival and maintain quality of life. Treatment with riluzole improves survival but has a marginal effect on the rate of functional deterioration, whereas non-invasive ventilation prolongs survival and improves or maintains quality of life. In this Review, we discuss the diagnosis, management, and how to cope with impaired function and end of life on the basis of our experience, the opinions of experts, existing guidelines, and clinical trials. We highlight the need for research on the effectiveness of gastrostomy, access to non-invasive ventilation and palliative care, communication between the care team, the patient and his or her family, and recognition of the clinical and social effects of cognitive impairment. We recommend that the plethora of evidence-based guidelines should be compiled into an internationally agreed guideline of best practice.