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Compulsive gambling

Compulsive gambling, also called gambling disorder, is the uncontrollable urge to keep gambling despite the toll it takes on your life. Gambling means that you're willing to risk something you value in the hope of getting something of even greater value.

Gambling can stimulate the brain's reward system much like drugs such as alcohol can, leading to addiction. If you're prone to compulsive gambling, you may continually chase bets, hide your behavior, deplete savings, accumulate debt, or even resort to theft or fraud to support your addiction.

Compulsive gambling is a serious condition that can destroy lives. Although treating compulsive gambling can be challenging, many compulsive gamblers have found help through professional treatment.

Symptoms Causes Risk factors Complications Prevention

Signs and symptoms of compulsive (pathologic) gambling include:

  • Gaining a thrill from taking big gambling risks
  • Taking increasingly bigger gambling risks
  • Preoccupation with gambling
  • Reliving past gambling experiences
  • Gambling as a way to escape problems or feelings of helplessness, guilt or depression
  • Taking time from work or family life to gamble
  • Concealing or lying about gambling
  • Feeling guilt or remorse after gambling
  • Borrowing money or stealing to gamble
  • Failed efforts to cut back on gambling

On rare occasions, gambling becomes a problem with the very first wager. But more often, a gambling problem progresses over time. In fact, many people spend years enjoying social gambling without any problems. But more frequent gambling or life stresses can turn casual gambling into something much more serious.

During periods of stress or depression, the urge to gamble may be especially overpowering, serving as an unhealthy escape. Eventually, a person with a gambling problem becomes almost completely preoccupied with gambling and getting money to gamble.

For many compulsive gamblers, betting isn't as much about money as it is about the excitement. Sustaining the thrill that gambling provides usually involves taking increasingly bigger risks and placing larger bets. Those bets may involve sums you can't afford to lose.

Unlike most casual gamblers who stop when losing or set a loss limit, compulsive gamblers are compelled to keep playing to recover their money — a pattern that becomes increasingly destructive over time.

Some compulsive gamblers may have remission where they gamble less or not at all for a period of time. However, without treatment, the remission usually isn't permanent.

When to see a doctor or mental health provider

Have family members, friends or co-workers expressed concern about your gambling? If so, listen to their worries. Because denial is almost always a characteristic of compulsive or addictive behavior, it may be difficult for you to recognize that you have a problem.

Gambling is out of control if:

  • It's affecting your relationships, finances, or work or school life
  • You're devoting more and more time and energy to gambling
  • You've unsuccessfully tried to stop or cut back on your gambling
  • You try to conceal your gambling from family or others
  • You resort to theft or fraud to get gambling money
  • You ask others to bail you out of financial woes because you've gambled money away

Exactly what causes someone to gamble compulsively isn't well understood. Like many problems, compulsive gambling may result from a combination of biological, genetic and environmental factors.

Compulsive gambling affects both men and women, and it cuts across cultural, social and economic lines. Although most people who play cards or wager never develop a gambling problem, certain factors are more often associated with compulsive gamblers:

  • Other behavior or mood disorders. People who gamble compulsively often have substance abuse problems, mood or personality disorders, or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Many compulsive gamblers abuse alcohol, and many experience major depression.
  • Age. Compulsive gambling is more common in younger and middle-aged people.
  • Sex. Compulsive gambling is more common in men than in women. Women who gamble typically start later in life, are more apt to have depression, anxiety or bipolar disorders, and may become addicted more quickly. But gambling patterns among men and women have become increasingly similar.
  • Family influence. If one of your parents had a gambling problem, the chances are greater that you will, too.
  • Medications used to treat Parkinson's disease and restless legs syndrome. Medications called dopamine agonists have a rare side effect that results in compulsive behaviors, including gambling, in some people.
  • Certain personality characteristics. Being highly competitive, a workaholic, restless or easily bored may increase your risk.

Compulsive gambling can have profound and long-lasting consequences for your life, such as:

  • Relationship problems
  • Financial problems, including bankruptcy
  • Legal problems or imprisonment
  • Job loss or professional stigma
  • Associated alcohol or drug abuse
  • Poor general health
  • Mental health disorders, such as depression
  • Suicide

There's no proven way to prevent a gambling problem from occurring or recurring. If you have risk factors for compulsive gambling, it may be helpful to avoid gambling in any form, people who gamble and places where gambling occurs. Get treatment at the earliest sign of a problem to help prevent a gambling disorder from becoming worse.

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