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Ketamine Abuse: Symptoms, Signs & Dangers to Watch For

Symptoms of ketamine abuse include confusion, unconsciousness, and stiff muscles, among others.

Struggling with Hallucinogen Addiction? Get Help Now

Ketamine is a hallucinogenic drug commonly used in veterinary offices for use in animal anesthesia. Per the Controlled Substance Act, ketamine is a Schedule III non-narcotic substance. It has limited anesthetic use in humans, and some believe it could be helpful in treating depression. 

However, ketamine is not meant for recreational use. People who abuse it could face arrests or fines for attempting to abuse the drug.

Researchers writing for the American Public Health Association say that less than 1% of Americans abuse the drug. In the 2022 Survey of Drug Use and Health, researchers found that ketamine abuse rates were highest in people ages 18 and 25. However, researchers didn’t identify ketamine abuse by race or another demographic, so it’s unclear if one group uses the drug more than another.

Since ketamine abuse is relatively rare, you may not know the signs and symptoms to watch for. They’re typically clustered into physical and behavioral groups. And some develop withdrawal and overdose signs too.

How Does Ketamine Work?

In 2023, researchers published the results of studies on ketamine abuse and mice. They found that ketamine increases dopamine levels, and those alterations lead to widespread structural changes in the brain’s dopamine system. At the same time, ketamine exposure leads to a decrease in electrical activity in the part of the brain that regulates mood.

Researchers said these changes indicate why long-term ketamine abuse could cause people to exhibit symptoms similar to schizophrenia. They often experience dissociative effects due to their drug abuse.

Ketamine also works directly on the sympathetic nervous system. It speeds up the heartbeat and raises blood pressure. These symptoms can mask serious overdose symptoms, like slow breathing, that are also caused by ketamine. It can be easy to take too much without realizing it.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration hasn’t approved any medications for ketamine abuse or addiction. Treatment teams often use supportive care (such as fluids and monitoring) to help people struggling with ketamine intoxication. Treatment programs help people learn more about why they started using the drug and what they might need to do to stay sober.

Physical Signs of Ketamine Abuse

For some families, the best way to spot ketamine abuse is to look for signs of intoxication. They tend to be strong, severe, and hard to ignore. 

Common physical signs of ketamine abuse include the following:

  • ·   Difficulty with attention
  • ·   Problems with learning
  • ·   Dream-like states
  • ·   Hallucinations
  • ·   Sedation
  • ·   Confusion
  • ·   Difficulty with speaking
  • ·   Memory loss
  • ·   Stiff or numb muscles
  • ·   Problems moving, which can be enough to make the person immobile
  • ·   Increased blood pressure
  • ·   Nausea
  • ·   Unconsciousness
  • ·   Slow breathing, which can be severe enough to lead to death

Long-term use can cause bladder problems (such as ulcers), kidney pain, stomach pain (which some call “K cramps”), flashbacks, poor memory, and depression. People with these symptoms may need to visit a doctor for help.

Behavioral Signs of Ketamine Abuse

Ketamine is relatively difficult to get, and it’s also illegal for people to use and abuse. People with a ketamine abuse issue may develop tell-tale habits due to the desperate need to keep their habits private. 

Behavioral signs of abuse include the following:

  • Social isolation
  • Defensiveness about drug use
  • Changes in social circles
  • Spending large periods behind locked doors (such as in the bathroom)
  • Visiting veterinarians often, looking for drugs
  • Arrests for theft or breaking-and-entering vet clinics
  • Spending time with drug dealers
  • Neglecting work or school responsibilities

Some people are willing to discuss their drug use habits when confronted, but others continue to hide their behaviors. And they may grow even more secretive and abuse more substances after a difficult conversation.

These changes can increase the isolation associated with ketamine abuse. In time, people may feel like ketamine is the only option left to them.

Does Ketamine Cause Withdrawal?

Ketamine is so powerful that it can cause long-standing changes in the human brain. People who take ketamine for long periods may feel unwell between doses, and they can worsen when people try to quit. 

Ketamine withdrawal symptoms can include the following:

  • Agitation 
  • Confusion
  • Fatigue 
  • Insomnia 
  • Muscle stiffness 
  • Shaking 

Some people develop withdrawal symptoms within hours of quitting the drug, and others don’t experience symptoms until a day or so later.

Ketamine Overdose Symptoms

Many people who abuse ketamine take very large doses that others can’t tolerate. But even experienced ketamine users can take too much and overdose.

A ketamine overdose can cause the following types of symptoms:

  • Abdominal
  • Cardiovascular
  • Neurological 
  • Psychiatric 
  • Urogenital 

Some people develop seizures due to an overdose, while others just seem disoriented and sick. Seizures can be very dangerous, so it’s imperative to get help right away.

Doctors can use medications to control seizures and cardiac problems. They can also offer fluids to help push the drug out of a person’s body.

If you think someone has experienced a ketamine overdose, call 911 and ask the operator what to do next. Follow the instructions you hear, and stay with the person until help arrives.

Get Help for Ketamine Addiction

No FDA-approved medication can correct chemical imbalances caused by ketamine abuse. No pill or injection can make symptoms of addiction go away. But therapy and counseling can help you to control your cravings and reduce your relapse risks. 

Treatment programs for ketamine abuse often involve group counseling, individual counseling, and support group meetings. With these tools, you can stop using ketamine for good.

Updated April 30, 2024
  1. Recreational Ketamine Use Has Increased in Recent Years, but Remains Rare. (October 2021). New York University.
  2. Facing Addiction in America: The Surgeon General’s Report on Alcohol, Drugs, and Health. (November 2016). Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
  3. A Potential Case of Acute Ketamine Withdrawal: Clinical Implications for the Treatment of Refractory Depression. (July 2021). The American Journal of Psychiatry.
  4. Ketamine Toxicity. (January 2023). StatPearls.
  5. Ketamine. (April 2020). U.S. Department of Justice.
  6. Trends in Ketamine Use, Exposures, and Seizures in the United States up to 2019. (November 2021). American Public Health Association.
  7. New Study Maps Ketamine’s Effects on Brain. (December 2023). Columbia News.
  8. 2022 NSDUH Detailed Tables. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
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