Veno-venous extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) is a helpful intervention in patients with severe refractory hypoxemia either because mechanical ventilation cannot ensure adequate oxygenation or because lung protective ventilation is not feasible. Since ECMO is a highly invasive procedure with several, potentially devastating complications and its implementation is complex and expensive, simpler and less invasive therapeutic options should be first exploited. Low tidal volume and driving pressure ventilation, prone position, neuromuscular blocking agents and individualized ventilation based on transpulmonary pressure measurements have been demonstrated to successfully treat the vast majority of mechanically ventilated patients with severe hypoxemia. Veno-venous ECMO has a place in the small portion of severely hypoxemic patients in whom these strategies fail. A combined analysis of recent ARDS trials revealed that ECMO was used in only 2.15% of patients (n = 145/6736). Nevertheless, ECMO use has sharply increased in the last decade, raising questions regarding its thoughtful use. Such a policy could be harmful both for patients as well as for the ECMO technique itself. This narrative review attempts to describe together the practical approaches that can be offered to the sickest patients before going to ECMO, as well as the rationale and the limitations of ECMO. The benefit and the drawbacks associated with ECMO use along with a direct comparison with less invasive therapeutic strategies will be analyzed.