Ketamine is a drug that’s used as an anesthetic drug in people and animals. It also has dissociative effects that may be useful in treating depression and other mental health issues. Ketamine may also be used as a recreational drug to achieve a euphoric or psychedelic high. Misusing ketamine can lead to serious consequences like addiction, dependence, withdrawal, and medical issues. Long-term ketamine abuse is even more dangerous, increasing the likelihood of serious consequences. Learn more about ketamine and how you can address substance use disorders related to this drug.
What is Ketamine?
Ketamine is a psychoactive drug that is primarily used as an anesthetic. It’s considered a dissociative anesthetic. Dissociatives can produce feelings of being separated from your body or your environment. Anesthetics are used to reduce your sense of awareness and consciousness during medical procedures. It’s used as an anesthetic medication in humans and animals. In veterinary medicine, it may be used on cats, dogs, and horses. Its anesthetic effects are induced at higher doses, but at lower doses, it may be used for pain relief and pain management.
In recent years, it has been investigated for use as a therapeutic drug to treat depression. The idea behind it is that it can help you relax and separate from your current problems to gain a different perspective. It may be paired with talk therapy, allowing you to work through issues objectively, while the drug allows you to distance yourself from the painful symptoms of depression. In 2019, the Food and Drug Administration approved a ketamine nasal spray for treating depression.
It’s considered a Schedule II federally controlled substance, which means that it is considered to have some approved medical uses, but it also has significant abuse potential. It may be used to achieve a sedating or dissociative high among recreational drug users. It can be snorted, injected, or taken orally. In some cases, it has been mixed with marijuana or tobacco and smoked. Because of its use in vet medicine, it has several animal-based street names, including Cat Valium, Kit Kat, and horse tranquilizer. It’s also called Special K, K, and Super K.
Ketamine was first used in medical procedures in the 1960s, especially in the Vietnam War. The use of ketamine as a recreational drug arose in the 1970s. Dissociative effects may be experienced in doses that are low enough not to cause you to lose consciousness. Ketamine misuse can lead to some potentially dangerous side effects, including liver and urinary toxicity.
Ketamine Misuse and Abuse
Ketamine may be abused as a recreational drug, or it may be misused to self-medicate for mental or physical issues. Abuse is any use of ketamine beyond what is prescribed by a doctor in order to achieve a euphoric high. It may cause comforting analgesic effects, visual distortions, a sense of floating, physical or emotional numbness, blurred vision, and sometimes hallucinations. However, the subjective effects of the drug may vary. Some people may experience positive effects, while others experience strange and even frightening hallucinations or dissociative episodes.
Ketamine can also be mixed into other substances and even pressed into counterfeit pills. According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, ketamine is also sometimes used to facilitate sexual assault crimes.
Illicit ketamine use started in the 1970s, and it was common through the 1980s and 1990s. Today, ketamine isn’t as common as the more popular illicit drugs like marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamine, and opioids. However, it may still be abused by people that come across it. In some places, ketamine is still a popular club drug, along with MDMA.
Ketamine misuse refers to the use of the drug for its therapeutic effects without consulting a doctor or medical professional. Ketamine may be misused to treat pain or depression symptoms without a prescription. It may also be used to treat a range of other problems that cause troubling symptoms. However, using the drug without getting a prescription from a doctor could be potentially dangerous. Obtaining drugs from illicit sources may mean getting contaminated or adulterated drugs that could contain other powerful or toxic substances. Right now, dangerous synthetic opioids like fentanyl are being mixed into other drugs and taken without users knowing. This can cause a fatal opioid overdose.
What Are the Signs of Ketamine Addiction?
The addiction and dependence liability for ketamine is unknown, but the drug has been shown to cause drug dependence in people that use it regularly. Dependence is caused by your body’s adaptation of your brain chemistry in response to consistent drug use. Dependence can cause you to experience uncomfortable physical or psychological symptoms when you cut back or stop using ketamine. Ketamine use disorders can occur with high doses or long-term use. Ketamine abuse may also be associated with the use of other substances that can also lead to addiction. Identifying a substance use disorder is important in getting treatment as soon as possible.
Addiction is characterized by the compulsive use of a drug that becomes difficult to control. You may continue to use even when the drug is causing consequences in your life. Addiction is officially diagnosed in the DSM as a mild, moderate, or severe substance use disorder. The disorder comes with 11 common signs and symptoms. The number of symptoms you experience determines whether the disorder is mild, moderate, or severe. The 11 symptoms include the following:
- Dangerous use. This refers to using ketamine or another drug to the point that it puts you or someone else in danger. This can include overdose, driving while intoxicated, or other potential dangers.
- Relationship issues. You may use ketamine to the point that it causes problems in your relationships or in other social situations with friends, loved ones, or acquaintances.
- Neglecting responsibilities to use. If you neglect roles at work, school, or home because of ketamine use, it’s a sign of addiction.
- Withdrawal symptoms. Uncomfortable symptoms that are caused by chemical dependence may show up when you stop using or use less than normal.
- Tolerance. Tolerance often shows up with dependence. You may feel like you need to use heavier doses or use it more often to achieve the same effects.
- Using more and more often. You may feel like you need to use heavier doses more often. Tolerance is causing you to increase your ketamine use.
- Trying and failing to stop. If you’ve tried to quit ketamine but weren’t able to because of cravings or withdrawal more than once, it’s a sign of a substance use issue.
- Spending more time using. Addiction tends to take over more of your time. You may feel the need to use at odd hours, like early in the morning or during work.
- Mental or physical problems related to ketamine. If ketamine is causing your psychological or physical health to worsen, you may be addicted. Ketamine can cause liver and urinary problems. But it may also trigger mental health issues like anxiety or psychotic disorders.
- Giving up hobbies. Many people with substance use disorders give up hobbies and activities they enjoy to use drugs or alcohol.
- Ketamine cravings. You may experience cravings to use the drug again, or it may dominate your thoughts when you’re not using it.
What are the Withdrawal Symptoms of Ketamine?
Ketamine can cause some uncomfortable symptoms when you stop using it after a long period of use. Withdrawal is caused by a sudden cessation of drug use after your brain has adapted to it. You can quit ketamine, and your brain will return to normal, but it may take time to return to normal brain chemistry. In the meantime, you’ll experience uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms.
According to the FDA, ketamine can cause a withdrawal syndrome with psychotic features. That means withdrawal can cause symptoms like hallucinations or delusions, which can be disturbing. Drugs that cause psychosis can be more dangerous for people with mental health issues like schizophrenia and can trigger psychotic episodes. Other withdrawal symptoms include:
- Changes in heart rate
- Changes in appetite
How Dangerous Is Ketamine?
Ketamine can be dangerous in high doses and when it’s taken for long periods of time. The drug can also be toxic, affecting several parts of your body. In high doses and long-term use, ketamine can cause neurological issues, heart problems, and abdominal issues. It’s also been found to contribute to ulcerative cystitis in people that use the drug recreationally.
Ketamine use can also contribute to bladder disease and urinary issues that can be life-threatening without treatment.
How is Ketamine Addiction Treated?
Ketamine isn’t known to cause severe substance use disorders, but it can lead to dependence and addiction. The first step in addressing a ketamine use issue is to speak to a doctor or clinician. Your doctor may be able to help you stop using ketamine safely. If necessary, you may go through a treatment program that can allow you to address the underlying issues that are caused by or contribute to your ketamine use problems. Addiction treatment is a complex process that involves multiple levels of care, including inpatient and outpatient services. Treatment may include individual and group therapy sessions. Behavioral therapies are common in addiction treatment, especially cognitive behavioral therapy.