What Is Ketamine?
As a short-acting hallucinogenic anesthetic, ketamine has several legitimate medical uses, such as being used for a veterinary anesthetic and to treat some cases of depression. It has also been the subject of some promising medical research.
Some people misuse ketamine recreationally as a club drug. It is one of several drugs that are commonly used to facilitate sexual assault.
Ketamine seems to have moderate to high abuse and addiction potential, although exactly how addictive it might be isn’t well-researched.
Key Facts & Statistics About Ketamine
- This drug is most commonly abused by teens and young adults, with one 2000 survey suggesting as much as 3 percent of high school seniors had used ketamine within the past year, although more recent data suggests that number may be lower now.
- Overall, any amount of ketamine abuse among all American teens and adults is estimated to be about 1 percent.
- Recreational ketamine use is rare, but its use has also been on the rise, in part because the drug has become more accessible due to its approval for treating certain kinds of depression.
- About 1.1 ketamine-related poisonings occur per 1 million people.
Common Side Effects of Ketamine
Ketamine is what’s called an N-methyl-d-aspartate receptor antagonist. It interacts with the body in some ways that are similar to opioids.
Ketamine can have several powerful and potentially harmful side effects a person should be aware of.
Physical Side Effects
When used as intended, ketamine can help to reduce or eliminate the pain a person is feeling. It was used for this purpose on humans extensively during the Vietnam War and sometimes still is, although doctors generally consider alternatives first.
Ketamine causes cardiovascular and respiratory depression, which means it slows your heart and breathing. This is the primary reason heavy ketamine use is so dangerous. It’s possible to slow your heart or breathing down too much. If this occurs, a person can begin to experience a serious overdose.
In toxic doses, ketamine is associated with tachycardia and high blood pressure. It has also sometimes caused heart attacks and other major health problems in high doses.
Ketamine is also associated with urogenital and abdominal symptoms. This means that ketamine use can possibly affect the urinary and genital tracts, impacting the way you use the bathroom and have sex.
Information on the long-term effects of ketamine is limited. At the very least, the physical side effects above signal that there is a potential for organ damage if it is repeatedly used in high doses. Ketamine use is also associated with at least some physical dependence.
Mental & Emotional Side Effects
Ketamine is a dissociative anesthetic that can lead to dissociative episodes, where a person feels like they exist outside of their body. It can also cause amnesia, with a person struggling to remember details about what occurred while on the drug.
At lower doses, it can reduce a person’s coordination and judgment, potentially leading to unsafe decisions. At higher doses, it can render a person very confused or almost completely immobile.
Ketamine can increase neurotransmitters in the brain, such as norepinephrine, dopamine, and serotonin. This is key to how it can treat severe depression when used in a prescribed, medical context.
Some more information is available about potential long-term effects of ketamine relating to mental and emotional health. As has been touched on, it can help in some mental health treatments when used carefully, such as helping with depression and potentially having a place in drug addiction recovery treatment too.
At the same time, there is also the possibility for a person to become dependent on and addicted to ketamine. This requires more research if we intend to use it as part of the addiction recovery process.
Signs of Ketamine Abuse
Any amount of unprescribed ketamine use should be considered abuse, even if the person isn’t intentionally misusing it for recreation. The use of ketamine will generally be pretty obvious when a person is still high, as the changes to a person’s demeanor as a result of their out-of-body experience, reduced coordination, and lowered judgment would be very difficult to mask.
Recognizing a Ketamine Addiction
Addiction is different than drug abuse. Addiction occurs when a person’s drug use is no longer in their control and they cannot stop, even as that drug use begins to have serious consequences.
Often, a sign of ketamine addiction is physical dependence. This is when a person’s body has adjusted to repeated drug use and needs time to readjust to its normal state, going through withdrawal.
Ketamine withdrawal is poorly studied, but in some cases, it has been shown to potentially cause fairly severe mood swings and irritability. These can be severe enough that some people may need to detox at a treatment center with continual medical supervision and support.
Addiction often causes people to become more isolated, reducing how much time they spend doing things they love or being with friends and family. It also can affect their ability to meet important obligations, like going to work or school.
Treatment Options for Ketamine Addiction
Because of the limited research available, treatments optimized to help with ketamine addiction haven’t been fully developed yet. However, more general addiction treatment options should still be effective.
Treatment for a person dealing with a ketamine addiction will generally involve the following:
- Inpatient detox
- Behavioral therapies and counseling
- Treatment for co-occurring mental health issues
- Long-term follow-up care to track progress and prevent relapse
- Support group participation to foster a strong support network in recovery
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- Ketamine Toxicity. (April 2022). StatPearls.
- Recreational Ketamine Use Has Increased in Recent Years, But Remains Rare. (October 2021). New York University.
- Treatment Approaches for Drug Addiction. (January 2019). National Institute on Drug Abuse.
- Ketamine for the Treatment of Mental Health and Substance Use Disorders: Comprehensive Systematic Review. (December 2021). BJPsych Open.