Pathological gambling


Pathological gambling is being unable to resist impulses to gamble, which can lead to severe personal or social consequences.

Alternative Names

Gambling - compulsive; Compulsive gambling; Addictive gambling


Pathological gambling usually begins in early adolescence in men, and between ages 20 and 40 in women.

Pathological gambling often involves repetitive behaviors. People with this problem have a hard time resisting or controlling the impulse to gamble. Although it shares features of obsessive compulsive disorder, pathological gambling is likely a different condition.

In people who develop pathological gambling, occasional gambling leads to a gambling habit. Stressful situations can worsen gambling problems.


People with pathological gambling often feel ashamed and try to avoid letting other people know about their problem. The American Psychiatric Association defines pathological gambling as having five or more of the following symptoms:

Exams and Tests

A psychiatric evaluation and history can be used to diagnose pathological gambling. Screening tools such as the Gamblers Anonymous 20 Questions can help with the diagnosis.


Treatment for people with pathological gambling begins with recognizing the problem. Pathological 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:

Outlook (Prognosis)

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.

Possible Complications

Complications may include:

Getting the right treatment can help prevent many of these problems.

When to Contact a Medical Professional

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.

Public exposure to gambling, however, continues to increase in the form of lotteries, electronic and Internet gambling, and casinos. Intervention at the earliest signs of pathological gambling may prevent the disorder from getting worse.


Gould CM, Sanders KM. Impulse-control disorders. In: Stern TA, Rosenbaum JF, Fava M, Biederman J, Rauch SL, eds. Massachusetts General Hospital Comprehensive Clinical Psychiatry. 1st ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Mosby Elsevier;2008:chap 23.

Gamblers anonymous. Twenty questions. Accessed January 11, 2012.

Review Date: 2/13/2012
Reviewed By: Linda Vorvick, MD, Medical Director and Director of Didactic Curriculum, MEDEX Northwest Division of Physician Assistant Studies, Department of Family Medicine, UW Medicine, School of Medicine, University of Washington; and Timothy Rogge, MD, Medical Director, Family Medical Psychiatry Center, Kirkland, WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M. Health Solutions, Ebix, Inc.
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