Ketamine Risks, Side Effects, and Treatment

While ketamine has a relatively low chance of addiction, it's potential for abuse has increased in recent years. It's a popular club and festival drug that can have serious adverse effects, even from short-term use.
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What is Ketamine?

Ketamine IV (Addiction Group)

Ketamine is a dissociative anesthetic drug used in surgeries on both humans and animals. It also has shown potential for treating depression and other mental health disorders. The recreational use of ketamine has become much more popular in recent years.

Now, it is a commonly abused substance among young adults. It is frequently used as a club drug like MDMA at raves and festivals. It is common for people to combine ketamine with alcohol and other drugs. It has also seen use as a date rape drug.

Ketamine that is sold on the streets often comes from veterinary offices. It is an injectable liquid that is evaporated into a white powder and is snorted or compressed into pills.

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It is a dissociative drug that alters a person’s awareness of their surroundings, thoughts, and feelings. There are two types of hallucinogens, including:

  • Classic psychedelic hallucinogens (such as LSD and psilocybin)
  • Dissociative drugs (such as ketamine and PCP)

Both types cause hallucinations or images and feelings that seem real even though they are not.

Street names for ketamine include:

  • Cat Valium
  • Vitamin K
  • Special K

In March 2019, the United States Food and Drug Administration approved the use of ketamine to treat major depression. Esketamine is a nasal spray prescribed by a doctor that reduces suicidal thoughts or actions and relieves other serious symptoms of depression. Racemic ketamine, the injected form used as an anesthetic, is also used off-label to treat depression. The dose used to treat depression is much lower than the dose used for anesthesia.

A study from 2018 found an estimated 5.6 million people (12 and older) were past-year users of hallucinogens. This is about 2 percent of the U.S. population.

National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH)
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Risks of Ketamine

Currently, more research is required to fully understand how ketamine works in the brain to produce hallucinations. Most likely, ketamine is binding to NMDA receptors in the brain. This binding generates more of a neurotransmitter, glutamate, in between neurons. Glutamate then activates AMPA receptors, leading to the release of other chemicals that allow neurons to communicate with one another.

The process above is called synaptogenesis, and can affect mood, cognition, and thought patterns. It is the likely culprit for the cause of hallucinations when taking ketamine.

People use ketamine for a variety of reasons, such as recreational and social purposes like having fun and coping with stress. Others may use it for its hallucinogenic properties to have “visions” of higher powers or achieve an enlightened sense of thinking and being.

If someone takes a high dose of ketamine, they may experience a “K-hole” or terrifying feelings of almost complete sensory detachment. This experience can be compared to a bad LSD trip and is a highly unpleasant sensation.

Graphic of person being sick or having side effects.

Side Effects of Ketamine

Due to its dissociative properties, the most common short-term side effect of ketamine is hallucinations. Other side effects include:

  • Disorientation and loss of coordination
  • Increase in blood pressure, body temperature, and heart rate
  • Numbness

12 percent of patients who were administered ketamine as an anesthetic report experiencing:

  • Pleasant dream-like states
  • Hallucinations
  • Vivid imagery
  • Emergence delirium (during the transition from unconsciousness to being fully awake)
  • Confusion
  • Excitement

When someone takes a high dose of ketamine, they can experience other, more serious side effects such as:

  • Panic and anxiety
  • Seizures
  • Memory loss
  • Psychotic symptoms
  • Amnesia
  • Mood swings
  • Trouble breathing
  • Inability to move

The long-term effects of dissociative drugs can last for a year or more after use stops. These include:

  • Memory loss
  • Weight loss
  • Anxiety
  • Speech problems
  • Depression and suicidal thoughts

If someone takes too much ketamine at once, a ketamine overdose can occur and result in respiratory depression (difficulty breathing).

Graphic of woman going through withdrawal.

Ketamine Abuse and Addiction Symptoms

Ketamine is classified as a Schedule III controlled substance by the Drug Enforcement Administration. These drugs have medical uses and a "moderate to low potential for physical and psychological dependence.”

However, it is possible for ketamine users to become addicted from long-term use or substance abuse. Physical and psychological dependence develop as a result of someone taking ketamine for an extended period of time. A person who uses ketamine daily will need to continue taking it to feel like themselves and function normally. Tolerance also develops over time, and individuals will need higher doses of ketamine in order to feel the same effects.

Addiction is characterized by a set of symptoms involving drug use and behavior. Someone who is addicted to ketamine might be unable to stop using it, may continue to do so despite knowing it is harmful, and may have cravings when not taking it. Symptoms of ketamine addiction include:

  • Anxiety
  • Disorientation
  • Insomnia
  • Psychotic episodes
  • Hallucinations
  • Flashbacks
  • Dysphoria
Graphic human body showing symptoms.

Ketamine Withdrawal

Long term ketamine use alters the way your brain functions. When drug use is stopped, your body will begin to undergo detox. During detox, the body experiences shock and exhibits symptoms of withdrawal. These symptoms can be uncomfortable and sometimes dangerous. The Food and Drug Administration states that withdrawal syndrome with psychotic features has been reported after prolonged ketamine use is discontinued.

Ketamine withdrawal symptoms include:

  • Agitation
  • Cognitive impairment
  • Confusion
  • Delusions
  • Fatigue
  • Hallucinations
  • Hearing loss
  • Heart rate fluctuations
  • Insomnia
  • Loss of motor skills
  • Nausea
  • Psychosis
  • Rage
  • Shakes or tremors
  • Trouble breathing
  • Trouble sleeping
Graphic of hospital.

Ketamine Addiction Treatment Options

Drug abuse is best treated at professional treatment centers. Joining an effective treatment program is the best way to overcome an addiction. Behavioral therapy offered at qualified rehab centers can be an effective option for addressing drug addiction and the underlying causes. Support groups and 12-step programs are also valuable resources for anyone looking to improve their life.

Overcoming addiction to ketamine is difficult to do alone. Find treatment for you or a loved one today.

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Resources

Drug Enforcement Administration. “Drug Scheduling.” DEA, https://www.dea.gov/drug-scheduling

Food and Drug Administration. “KETALAR (ketamine hydrochloride) injection.” FDA, https://www.accessdata.fda.gov/drugsatfda_docs/label/2018/016812s040lbl.pdf

Meisner, Robert C. “Ketamine for major depression: New tool, new questions.” Harvard Medical School, May 2019, https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/ketamine-for-major-depression-new-tool-new-questions-2019052216673

National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Common Hallucinogens and Dissociative Drugs.” NIDA, Feb. 2015, https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/hallucinogens-dissociative-drugs/what-are-dissociative-drugs

National Institute on Drug Abuse. “What are hallucinogens?” NIDA, Apr. 2019, https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/hallucinogens

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. “2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health Annual National Report.” SAMHSA, Aug. 2019, https://www.samhsa.gov/data/sites/default/files/cbhsq-reports/NSDUHNationalFindingsReport2018/NSDUHNationalFindingsReport2018.pdf

Zorumski, Charles F., Izumi, Yukitoshi, Mennerick, Steven. “Ketamine: NMDA Receptors and Beyond.” The Journal of Neuroscience, vol. 36, no. 44, 2016, pp. 11158-11164. https://www.jneurosci.org/content/jneuro/36/44/11158.full.pdf

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Updated on: September 8, 2020
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Addiction Group Staff
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