Ketamine is an anesthetic drug that’s used to treat people and animals. While there are many anesthetic options in humans, ketamine was widely used in veterinary medicine, which has caused it to be associated with animal medicine despite approved use in humans.
Ketamine offers unique anesthetic effects, including dissociation, the feeling of separation from your surroundings like an out-of-body experience. These unique qualities have made it a useful anesthetic and even an antidepressant, but they have also made it a popular recreational drug. But how addictive is ketamine? What are the symptoms of ketamine addiction? Learn more about ketamine addiction and how it can be treated.
What is Ketamine?
Ketamine is a prescription medication that’s primarily used as an anesthetic medication. It is also used to induce a dissociative state, which distances you mentally and emotionally from your surroundings. This may help calm nerves and help people through painful or uncomfortable procedures. Ketamine was famously used during the rescue of the youth soccer team from a flooded cave in Thailand in 2018. The drug allowed rescuers to sedate the boys to be transported through the dangerous cave system. As a sedative, ketamine is unique in that it can achieve its effects without restricting breathing like central nervous system depressants.
Ketamine is a dissociative anesthetic drug, which means that it causes the loss of sensation and awareness while also creating a sense of psychological separation from your surroundings. The drug is chemically distinct from other sedative drugs like benzodiazepines, barbiturates, and opioids. It was first synthesized in 1962, and it was later tested on prisoners in 1964, where it was found to have a dream-like effect. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1970 for use as an anesthetic in humans and animals.
In 2000, the drug was found to have antidepressant qualities. Today, some doctors and therapists use ketamine as an aid in depression treatment. Ketamine infusions may be paired with talk therapy. The idea is to use the dissociative effects to talk through painful emotions, which may help to desensitize you from emotional triggers.
Ketamine has also been used as a recreational drug, especially in club scenes where it is nicknamed Special K or Cat Valium. In the United States, it’s classified as a Schedule III drug, which means that it’s considered to have a moderate abuse potential despite currently accepted medical uses. However, it’s considered to have a low to moderate addiction potential. It may be less likely to be abused than alcohol and marijuana, and it has a lower potential for substance use disorders when compared to other illicit drugs like cocaine or heroin.
However, a substance use disorder involving ketamine can happen with regular use or abuse.
What Are the Signs of Ketamine Addiction?
Addiction is a progressive disease that can come on gradually and take root in your life before you’ve realized it. Addiction is officially diagnosed as a substance use disorder in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). In the DSM, it is separated into categories based on its severity, which include mild, moderate, and severe disorders. Severity is determined by the number of symptoms you may experience. The DSM lists 11 common symptoms that are experienced by people with substance use disorders. Since addiction is a complex disease that affects the brain, symptoms can be physical, psychological, and behavioral.
Physical symptoms include tolerance, dependence, and withdrawal. As you get used to the drug, your brain and body will adapt to it. When you quit, you can experience uncomfortable symptoms of chemical imbalance until your body adjusts. Psychological symptoms may include cravings, a loss of interest in hobbies or responsibilities, and co-occurring psychological issues like addiction and depression. Behavioral signs can include using drugs to a hazardous degree, neglecting important responsibilities, and trying and failing to quit or cut back.
Ketamine addiction may be spotted by some of the acute effects the drug has. Ketamine causes dissociative episodes, passing out, sedation, and even hallucinogenic effects.
Ketamine addiction can also cause some unique signs when you miss a dose, stop using, or cut back. Ketamine withdrawal is characterized by drug cravings, irritability, general discomfort, sleep problems, depression, and anxiety.
What Is Involved in Ketamine Addiction Treatment?
If you’ve been using ketamine, and you realize you have a substance use problem, it’s important to seek treatment as soon as possible. But what are your first steps in addiction treatment going to be like? Initiating addiction treatment may start with a conversation with your doctor or therapist. Treatment often begins with an assessment process. If you have severe addiction with medical issues, you may need to start with a high level of care. As you progress in treatment, you may move on to lower levels of care.
Medical detox is the highest level of care in addiction treatment. It’s also called medically managed intensive inpatient treatment services, and it involves round-the-clock care from medical professionals. Medical detox is ideal for people who are likely to go through dangerous or severe withdrawal symptoms. Ketamine isn’t usually associated with medically dangerous withdrawal, though withdrawal can be uncomfortable. However, medical detox may also be helpful for people who have other significant health concerns along with their withdrawal symptoms.
If you don’t have serious, acute medical needs, but you do have a severe addiction that is likely to cause a relapse or continued use as you live on your own, you may need inpatient services. Inpatient and residential treatment are for people who need 24-hour support. This may involve medical monitoring if you would experience post-acute withdrawal symptoms. Residential services afford you more independence as you live in on-site accommodations. You’ll also go through 24-hour clinically managed treatment services. Residential services can also be helpful if you don’t have a good recovery environment. For instance, if you live with someone that still uses drugs.
When you’re ready to live on your own, you may move on to an outpatient level of care. The highest level of outpatient treatment is partial hospitalization or PHP. PHP involves 20 hours of treatment services each week or more. This is for people who can live on their own safely but still need high levels of support. As you progress, you may continue to intensive inpatient treatment, which requires at least nine hours of treatment each week. Finally, standard outpatient treatment involves fewer than nine hours of treatment services per week.
How Dangerous Is Ketamine?
Ketamine is a prescription drug, so it’s always important to avoid misusing or abusing potent medications. But how dangerous is ketamine? Ketamine isn’t associated with fatal overdose to the same degree as other substances like heroin or cocaine. Part of the reason for that is it’s much less popular as a recreational drug. But ketamine can be potentially dangerous when it’s used in high doses.
As a dissociative drug, it can cause some non-fatal overdose symptoms that are unpleasant and even disturbing. High doses can lead to what veteran ketamine users call a K-hole, which is characterized by an immobilizing, dissociative high that can last for an hour or more. An overdose can also cause seizures, psychological disturbances, and other uncomfortable symptoms. Seizures can lead to fatalities if they result in life-threatening injuries.
Very high doses of ketamine can also be toxic, which means they can damage certain parts of the body. Research has shown that ketamine overdose can cause neurological and cardiovascular toxicity. Ketamine can also cause respiratory depression similar to opioids and depressants. Respiratory depression is when your breathing slows down or stops, which can be fatal.
Frequent ketamine use in high doses can lead to some long-term health negative health effects. Ketamine can cause ulcerative cystitis, which is a chronic condition that affects the lining of the bladder, causing reduced bladder capacity and other complications.
Ketamine Abuse Statistics
Substance use problems are common in the United States. Around 40.3 million people 12 years old or older had a past-year substance use problem in 2020, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH). The survey also found that 7.1 million people used hallucinogens or dissociative drugs like LSD, MDMA, and ketamine, though that represents a very diverse group of drugs.
Ketamine isn’t as common as a recreational substance as other illicit and prescription drugs. But it still may be used to achieve a recreational high by some. Ketamine may also be used alongside alcohol, opioids, or other substances, which can be dangerous.