What Is a Gambling Disorder?

Gambling involves betting something of value on an activity that is primarily based on chance with the hope of winning a prize. It has existed in virtually every society since prerecorded history, and it is a part of many local customs and rites of passage. However, some people become heavily dependent on gambling, which can have a negative impact on their lives.

There is a growing role for primary care clinicians to evaluate patients for gambling disorders. These evaluations are akin to screening for drug abuse or substance use disorder. However, the nomenclature used for this behavior varies across disciplines. Research scientists, psychiatrists, other treatment care clinicians, and public policy makers frame questions about gambling differently based on their disciplinary training, clinical experience, and world view.

While there is a broad range of opinions about what defines a gambling problem, most researchers agree that compulsive gamblers have at least seven warning signs. These include: (1) gambling to escape from problems or avoid negative consequences; (2) spending more time on gambling than on work, family, and friends; (3) lying to others about the extent of their involvement with gambling; (4) relying on credit card loans or other financial sources to finance gambling; (5) jeopardizing relationships, jobs, education, or career opportunities because of gambling; and (6) returning to gamble even after they have lost money (i.e., chasing their losses).

Cultural influences can make it hard for some people to recognize that they have a gambling problem. This is because some cultures consider gambling to be a normal pastime. Some studies have also shown that people with an underactive brain reward system are more likely to be thrill seekers and have difficulty controlling impulses.