Gambling Addiction −Signs, Health Risks and How to Get Help

Last Updated: May 15, 2024

Dr. Norman Chazin Reviewed by Dr. Norman Chazin
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While gambling itself is not inherently problematic, when it spirals out of control, it can lead to financial debt, anxiety, depression and strained relationships, potentially pointing to a case of gambling addiction.

In the U.S., at least 2.5 million U.S. adults (1%) have met the criteria for a severe gambling problem, causing an annual national social cost of $14 billion due to gambling-related criminal justice, healthcare spending, job loss and bankruptcy. Continue reading to understand the causes, signs and treatments to recover from addiction to gambling.

What is Addiction to Gambling?

People gamble money or something of value on an uncertain outcome to win more money or material goods.

Popular forms of gambling include:

  • Casino gambling (blackjack, slot machines)
  • Lotteries (instant lotteries or “scratch” cards)
  • Internet gambling (poker or sports betting)
  • Raffles
  • Stock market
  • Baccarat
  • Bingo
  • Roulette

A gambling addiction occurs when a gambler starts feeling a persistent, uncontrollable, and recurrent need to gamble that is associated with significant impairment. People suffering from this addictive disorder will continue gambling despite its negative consequences.

Addiction to gambling is the only officially recognized behavioral addiction in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-5) under the term gambling disorder (GD).

Signs and Symptoms of Gambling Addiction

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-5) recognizes the similarities between pathological gambling behavior and substance addiction, particularly in terms of tolerance and withdrawal.

Following the criteria of the DSM-5, the symptoms of addiction to gambling are:

  • Preoccupation with gambling
  • Need to gamble more
  • Unsuccessful efforts to control gambling
  • Restlessness when cutting down
  • Gambling as a way to escape or ease negative feelings
  • Chasing losses (returning to gamble after losing money)
  • Lied about gambling behavior
  • Jeopardized/lost a relationship/job
  • Reliance on others for money

Two important points to consider are: i) a person should meet four (or more) of the above signs for 12 months to be accurately diagnosed, and ii) gambling addiction severity varies from mild (four or five criteria met), moderate (six or seven criteria met and severe (eight or nine criteria met).

Risk Factors of Addiction to Gambling

Addiction to gambling rarely appears out of nowhere. Typically, it evolves from a series of factors that may predispose someone to suffer from this addiction.

Factors that increase vulnerability to gambling disorder are:

Comorbidities or Dual Diagnosis

Comorbid scenarios make individuals more susceptible to developing an addictive behavior. Close to 25 to 63% of people admitted for substance abuse treatment also meet the criteria of pathological gambling.

Typically, alcohol drinking and gambling addiction go hand in hand, making gamblers more impulsive. Comorbid psychiatric disorders, including major depression, anxiety and attention/deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), are usually present as well.

Gambling may serve as a way to cope with underlying psychological distress. These comorbidities may present in the following rates:

  • Substance use disorders (Nearly 75%)
  • Personality disorder (60.8%)
  • Nicotine dependence (60.4%)
  • Mood disorders (49.6%)
  • Anxiety disorders (41.3%)
  • Drug use disorders (38.1% )

Genetic Predisposition

Research indicates that many symptoms of pathological gambling have a genetic basis, especially in families with a history of gambling addiction.

According to Yale Medicine, genetic factors contribute to about 50% of the risk of developing addiction to gambling.

Brain Chemistry

As with any other pleasurable experience, gambling activates the brain’s reward system, leading to the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure. Over time, gamblers may develop tolerance, pushing them to place larger bets to achieve the same level of satisfaction.


Historically, men have been more prone to gambling issues compared to women, yet this gap has been closing lately with the acceptance of women in the gambling community.

Gamblers now comprise about 60% of men and 40% of women in the US and worldwide.


Structural changes to casinos are designed to encourage continuous betting by lowering inhibitions with free drinks, allowing smoking, which becomes another health risk, and even using consistent lighting to blur time, keeping people inside for hours.

As well, the proliferation of online gambling platforms offering newcomers discounts has made gambling more accessible and tempting than ever before.

Gambling Addiction Long-Term Health Risks

Gambling disorder has serious long-term consequences that can take a significant toll on the gambler’s physical and mental health, such as:

  • Financial instability and debt accumulation
  • Worsened symptoms of depression and anxiety
  • Chronic stress and its associated health complications
  • Substance abuse as a form of self-medication
  • Poor nutrition, lack of exercise, deteriorated physical fitness
  • Increased risk of cardiovascular problems
  • Higher likelihood of engaging in risky behaviors
  • Sleep disturbances and insomnia
  • Social isolation and loneliness
  • Legal consequences

Gambling Addiction Treatment

Healthcare professionals have explored several treatment options for gamblers, ranging from self-help and peer support to brief to more intensive therapy approaches.

Gambling disorder treatment recommendations are:


Approaches like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) help people overcome problems by identifying and modifying maladaptive thinking and behavior. Motivational interviewing also helps change doubt about quitting into the motivation gamblers need to stop and recover.


Even though no medication currently holds an FDA indication for gambling disorder, pharmaceutically addressing the comorbidities improves the prognosis.

For example, certain opioid antagonists, effective in reducing alcohol cravings, may outperform placebos in treating gambling addiction. Antidepressants such as escitalopram have shown potential in treating the severity of gambling disorders in individuals with concurrent anxiety and gambling disorders. However, the medication approach needs further research.

Support Groups

Participation in peer support programs is a great option when combined with professional treatment. Programs like Gamblers Anonymous and a 12-step program offer a platform for participants to meet and share experiences.

Gambling Addiction − Final Considerations

For sustained remission, healthcare providers must adopt an all-inclusive approach to gambling disorder, first identifying and treating dual conditions that may be causing the severity of the addiction. Effective interventions consistently integrate professional care with the support of peer networks.

If you recognize potential symptoms in someone close to you, offer support and guide them toward the help they need.

People Also Ask

What is the main cause of gambling addiction?

Gambling addiction is rooted in psychological factors such as thrill-seeking behavior, dopamine release and the illusion of control. Genetic predispositions, substance abuse and mental health disorders also enhance the vicious cycle.

What is a gambling addict?

A gambling addict feels a compulsive need to gamble despite negative consequences. This addictive behavior is characterized by an inability to control or stop gambling despite efforts to do so.

Why people don’t stop gambling?

Addicted gamblers can’t stop gambling due to the thrill of the risk, the hope of winning big, and commonly to ease negative feelings caused by depression, anxiety or other mental health disorders.

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Page Sources

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  5. Petry, N. M., Stinson, F. S., & Grant, B. F. (2021, February 4). Comorbidity of DSM-IV Pathological gambling and other Psychiatric Disorders: Results from the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions.
  6. Gambling disorder. (2022, August 15). Yale Medicine.
  7. Kayser, A. (2019). Dopamine and Gambling Disorder: Prospects for Personalized Treatment. Current Addiction Reports, 6(2), 65.
  8. Hing, N., Smith, M. C., Rockloff, M., Thorne, H., Russell, A., Dowling, N. A., & Breen, H. (2022). How structural changes in online gambling are shaping the contemporary experiences and behaviours of online gamblers: an interview study. BMC Public Health, 22(1).
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Published on: April 18th, 2017

Updated on: May 15th, 2024

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