Ketamine is a dissociative anesthetic, in the same family as drugs like PCP and nitrous oxide. As a Schedule III regulated drug, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), ketamine is approved for use in hospital settings as an anesthetic and for pain relief in extreme circumstances. In very small doses, ketamine has some stimulant properties and may be able to restore neuron function, which medical researchers are investigating it as a potential treatment for people with brain damage from long-term abuse of intoxicating substances like heroin or methadone or for people who suffer major depression. However, right now, it is most often used as a sedative and anesthetic in medicine, particularly in veterinary medicine. As an anesthetic before surgery, ketamine is rarely used unless the person has had bad reactions to other anesthesia in the past.
How Is Ketamine Abused?
Ketamine is also a drug of abuse. In clinical settings, it is administered intravenously as a clear liquid; in illicit settings, it is known as a club drug and sold as a white powder. Recreational users have been known to snort the powder, mix it into drinks, roll it into a cigarette with tobacco or marijuana, or take it as a pill.
Effects of ketamine intoxication include body highs and hallucinations. These can begin within 1-5 minutes, and depending on the method of ingestion, the high associated with ketamine can last for 1-30 minutes. Although the initial euphoria does not last very long – typically no longer than 45-90 minutes for hallucinations and euphoria, even in large doses – side effects can last for up to 24 hours after one use.
- Loss of coordination
- Confusion or delirium
- Agitation Depression
- Dissociation from the body or self
- Changes in perception, including to colors or sounds
- Cognitive difficulties
- Numbness or tingling
Who Abuses Ketamine?
Because ketamine is a “club drug,” or used recreationally in social settings, it is most frequently abused by teenagers and young adults. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) from 2006, 0.1 percent of people ages 12 and older used ketamine, with the highest rate of illicit use being among those aged 18-25 years old (about 0.2 percent of use). The 2012 Monitoring the Future (MTF) survey found that ketamine use was on the rise among middle and high school students, with 1.5 percent of 12th grade students using the drug at some point in the previous year. In 2011, according to the Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN) survey, there were 1,550 visits to emergency rooms related to ketamine abuse.
When children, teenagers, and young adults abuse ketamine, they can damage their cognitive abilities. They will be less able to succeed in school or at work. Issues related to organ damage, including incontinence and heart disease, are not only embarrassing or difficult to manage, but they can dramatically shorten life and reduce overall quality of life.
People who struggle with addiction to other substances, such as alcohol, heroin, marijuana, cocaine, or MDMA, are more likely to also use ketamine. Because ketamine is abused in social settings for the most part, other substances can be laced into ketamine, or the person taking ketamine is more likely to consume other intoxicating substances to achieve a high.
Symptoms of Ketamine Abuse or Addiction
One of the most common symptoms of ketamine addiction, dependence, or abuse is a ketamine binge – the person takes repeated, large doses of the substance over a short period of time. This can increase the risk of physical damage and the experience of side effects, especially triggering psychological disorders, such as depression, paranoia, or even schizophrenia.
Abusing ketamine for a long time can cause serious damage to organ systems. Some of these effects include:
- High blood pressure
- Changes to intracranial pressure, putting stress on the brain
- Damage to the memory and other cognitive impairments
- Changes in vision
- Triggering of mental health disorders
- Ulcerative cystitis
- Bladder damage
- Renal damage
Although ketamine has few documented withdrawal symptoms from recreational doses, people who abuse this substance for months or years are more likely to experience psychological withdrawal symptoms. Some typical withdrawal symptoms from ketamine include:
- Flashbacks to hallucinations
Although many medical researchers are unsure if ketamine abuse can be called ketamine addiction, the body can develop both a dependence on and tolerance to the substance. People who abuse the drug frequently may exhibit other symptoms of addiction, like intense cravings for the drug, obsession about the next dose, and the inability to stop using it, even when the person wants to stop.
A serious potential problem with ketamine abuse is overdose. Symptoms of a ketamine overdose include:
- Inability to move
- Muscle rigidity or stiffness
- High body temperature
- Rapid heartbeat
To prevent or stop these problems, it is important to overcome ketamine abuse as soon as possible.
Get Help for Ketamine Abuse
Ketamine’s effects as a recreational substance do not last very long, because it is a short-acting drug. This means that it does not remain in the body for very long; it is typically cleared from blood plasma 11 hours after the dose. However, a buildup of ketamine in the brain or body can occur with long-term abuse of large doses.
Fortunately, withdrawal symptoms from stopping ketamine do not last very long – two weeks at most. However, psychological symptoms of addiction can continue for weeks or months after the body detoxes from the substance. These cravings and obsessive thoughts are the reasons that people who are addicted to ketamine, or who abuse the drug frequently, seek help from a medical professional or treatment program. Cravings can lead to relapse. Additionally, long-term ketamine abuse can trigger some mental health disorders, which require clinical supervision to treat and manage.
There are currently no medications approved by the FDA to specifically treat ketamine addiction. However, for people who struggle with a co-occurring disorder, such as ketamine abuse and major depression, other medications like low doses of benzodiazepines or antidepressants can ease psychological side effects of detoxing from ketamine.
Ketamine and Mental Health
Among teenagers and young adults who abuse ketamine, a co-occurring mental health issue is also very common. Substance abuse is often used as a way to self-medicate a mental health issue. As discussed earlier, ketamine in particular can also trigger mental health problems, including depression and psychosis. With co-occurring disorders, the psychological issue must be treated alongside the substance use disorder. Comprehensive therapy can address underlying causes of ketamine abuse, including mental health issues. Care for both conditions can best be found at an evidence-based rehabilitation program or facility.