Compulsive gambling is being unable to resist impulses to gamble. This can lead to severe money problems, job loss, crime or fraud, and damage to family relationships.
Compulsive gambling most often begins in early adolescence in men, and between ages 20 and 40 in women.
People with compulsive gambling have a hard time resisting or controlling the impulse to gamble. The brain is reacting to this impulse in the same manner it reacts to a person addicted to alcohol or drugs. Although it shares features of obsessive compulsive disorder, compulsive gambling is likely a different condition.
In people who develop compulsive gambling, occasional gambling leads to a gambling habit. Stressful situations can worsen gambling problems.
People with compulsive gambling often feel ashamed and try to avoid letting other people know about their problem. The American Psychiatric Association defines pathological gambling as having 5 or more of the following symptoms:
A psychiatric evaluation and history can be used to diagnose pathological gambling. Screening tools such as the Gamblers Anonymous 20 Questions www.gamblersanonymous.org/ga/content/20-questions can help with the diagnosis.
Treatment for people with compulsive gambling begins with recognizing the problem. Compulsive gamblers often deny they have a problem or need treatment.
Most people with pathological gambling only get treated when other people pressure them.
Treatment options include:
Like alcohol or drug addiction, pathological gambling is a long-term disorder that tends to get worse without treatment. Even with treatment, it's common to start gambling again (relapse). However, people with pathological gambling can do very well with the right treatment.
Complications may include:
Getting the right treatment can help prevent many of these problems.
Call your health care provider or mental health professional if you believe you have symptoms of pathological gambling.
Exposure to gambling may increase the risk of developing pathological gambling. Limiting exposure may be helpful for people who are at risk. Intervention at the earliest signs of pathological gambling may prevent the disorder from getting worse.
Reviewed By: Fred K. Berger, MD, addiction and forensic psychiatrist, Scripps Memorial Hospital, La Jolla, CA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.