What is Ketamine?
Ketamine is a dissociative drug designed for short-term pain relief that’s popularly abused for recreational purposes. It was originally developed as a supplementary anesthetic to morphine when there is refractory pain the morphine fails to treat. Many are wondering, is ketamine addictive? While it does not carry the same danger for addiction as other drugs, it is still used and abused in dangerous ways.
Ketamine is also a popular recreational drug, especially in the club and rave scenes among young adults. The reason for this is the profound state of relaxation users experience while on the drug. On the street, Ketamine goes by various names – some of the most popular being Vitamin K, Special K, and “Ked.”
Aside from its status as a supplementary anesthetic and popular club drug, some researchers see promise in ketamine as a treatment for depression. Research is ongoing to better understand the potential benefits and risks of using ketamine for this purpose.
In the United States, ketamine is classified as a Schedule III controlled substance, indicating that it has accepted medical uses but also has a potential for abuse and dependence. Possessing ketamine outside of an approved medical context is illegal and carries with it a possible penalty of up to twelve months in prison, a fine up to $2,500, either, or both.
Ketamine has several effects on the brain and body, which include:
- Dissociative anesthesia — Ketamine is an N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) receptor antagonist, meaning it blocks the activity of these receptors in the brain. This leads to dissociation, a state where the individual feels detached from their body and surroundings. In higher doses, ketamine can induce a “K-hole” experience, characterized by profound dissociation, hallucinations, and an altered perception of reality.
- Analgesic effect — Ketamine has pain-relieving properties that make it useful for managing acute and chronic pain. It is particularly effective in situations where traditional opioid painkillers are not suitable or effective, such as neuropathic pain or when opioid tolerance is a concern.
- Antidepressant effect — Research has shown that ketamine can have rapid and robust antidepressant effects, even in individuals with treatment-resistant depression. The exact mechanism of this effect is not fully understood, but it is believed to involve increased synaptic plasticity, the strengthening of connections between neurons, and the release of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which plays a role in brain health and function.
- Bronchodilation — Ketamine relaxes the smooth muscles in the airways, making it potentially useful in emergency situations where a patient is experiencing severe asthma or other respiratory issues.
Despite its therapeutic uses, ketamine is also a drug of abuse, and recreational use can lead to addiction, tolerance, and adverse effects such as cognitive impairment, bladder issues, and psychological symptoms.
Ketamine’s effects vary in duration depending on factors such as the route of administration, individual metabolism, dosage, and tolerance.
If injected or used as a nasal spray, the effects of ketamine may last 45 minutes to an hour. If consumed as a pill, the length of time (as well as onset) of the effects increased to between two and four hours. In all cases, some residual effects can linger for a few hours after the initial effects have subsided.
It is important to note that the duration of ketamine’s therapeutic effects in the treatment of mental health conditions, such as depression, can differ from its recreational effects. Relief from depressive symptoms may begin within hours of administration and persist for days or even weeks.
While ketamine is not as addictive as substances like opioids or stimulants, it does have the potential for abuse and addiction.
The dissociative state that ketamine generates may provide the user with a euphoric feeling. Over time, as the user builds a tolerance, they may use more and more of the drug to achieve the same effect. Eventually, they may feel compelled to use it merely to feel normal. According to the Drug Enforcement Agency, ketamine also has a low-to-moderate potential for physical dependence.
Some common symptoms of ketamine addiction include:
- Physical symptoms like changes in appetite, weight loss, poor hygiene, and injuries related to ketamine use, such as falls or accidents
- Psychological symptoms like mood swings, anxiety, paranoia, depression, or hallucinations
- Cravings to use ketamine
- Needing increased amounts of ketamine to achieve the desired effects
- Withdrawal symptoms like irritability, depression, insomnia, or restlessness.
- Inability to control ketamine use despite negative consequences, such as health, relationship, or financial problems
- Ignoring work, school, or family obligations in favor of using ketamine.
- Withdrawing from friends, family, or activities previously enjoyed
It is essential to seek medical advice and treatment if you suspect a ketamine addiction. Stopping the drug abruptly can lead to withdrawal symptoms and potential health complications.
In addition, it is possible to overdose on ketamine. While ketamine will rarely lead to a fatal overdose if taken alone, ketamine is often combined with other drugs, such as alcohol. That can bring fatal overdoses. Because ketamine can slow a person’s breathing, it is especially dangerous when taken with alcohol. Evidence shows ketamine can increase alcohol’s neurotoxicity.
At lower doses, ketamine has shown the potential to treat mental illnesses like clinical depression. Unlike other forms of medication like Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs), which take a while to build up effective levels in the blood, ketamine takes effect almost immediately. This means ketamine can provide immediate relief for depression while the SSRIs take time to build up.
Additionally, up to one-third of all patients who take SSRIs ultimately fail to gain any benefit from them over any period of time. Researchers believe ketamine can provide a viable alternative for these patients.
The use of ketamine in this manner is known as ketamine-assisted psychotherapy (KAP). In KAP, a trained mental health professional administers low doses of ketamine, often via intravenous infusion, intramuscular injection, or oral/sublingual routes, under controlled clinical settings. The rapid-acting antidepressant effects can create a temporarily altered state of consciousness, which may promote psychological insights and emotional breakthroughs.
Ketamine for Anxiety
Evidence suggests ketamine can be effective for the treatment of clinical anxiety as well. One study found KAP patients experienced significant improvement in symptoms of depression and anxiety within one hour of taking ketamine. Moreover, the improvement in symptoms was still apparent at the end of the study’s one-month period, suggesting KAP can bring lasting results.