Ketamine Addiction

Luke Prest
Calendar icon Last Updated: 01/25/2024

Reading Time: 6 minutes

What is Ketamine Addiction?

Ketamine is a medication commonly used to induce anesthesia and loss of consciousness in humans and animals. This Schedule III drug is approved for use in hospitals and veterinary settings but is sometimes used illicitly for its hallucinogenic effects. When used correctly for legitimate medical reasons, ketamine produces effects of pain relief and sedation, but when used in high doses, the drug can cause delirium, hallucinations, and memory loss.

Ketamine carries a moderate to low risk for physical dependence and psychological addiction, meaning those who abuse the drug regularly can experience cravings, withdrawal symptoms, and compulsive urges to use. But those who become addicted to ketamine can safely overcome their addiction to this anesthetic using detoxification and therapy at a drug rehab center.

Ketamine is primarily used to induce anesthesia in animals undergoing veterinary surgery. The drug produces dreamlike, paralytic effects similar to those of PCP that can last between 30 minutes and one hour. People who use ketamine experience intense highs and dissociative feelings that make users feel detached from their bodies, and can even cause hallucinations.

Studies show ketamine is effective in treating depression and can improve a person’s mood within just a few hours of use. But those who use ketamine short-term to treat depression can experience cravings for the drug due to its positive, desirable effects. These cravings can lead to increased use and tolerance, which is when people start using higher amounts of ketamine to achieve its effects. Over time, using ketamine repeatedly at high dose increases the risk for ketamine addiction.

What are the Risks of Ketamine Addiction?

Ketamine, also known as “Special K” on the streets, is commonly used as a date rape drug. Ketamine is tasteless and odorless, and comes in powder or liquid form that can be added to drinks and food and consumed without people knowing. Ketamine is also commonly used as a club drug among youth between the ages of 12 and 25 — an age group that represented 74% of emergency department visits associated with the drug in 2000.

When used in high doses, ketamine can cause nausea, vomiting, and loss of motor function, and increase heart rate and blood pressure. Respiratory problems, delirium, and amnesia are other common effects of ketamine abuse. Since the drug is hallucinogenic, people who use ketamine in a negative state of mind may experience unpleasant hallucinations, a sense of impending doom, and detachment from reality that can be frightening for some users.

Ketamine abuse can lead to paralysis and hyper-sedation, which can lead to slowed or stopped breathing. Many ketamine users also experience aggressive or violent behavior as a side effect, which can be a strange turn from the sedative effects of the drug. The safest way to get help for ketamine abuse is to visit an addiction treatment center that uses detox and therapy to treat symptoms.

What are the Symptoms of Ketamine Addiction?

Ketamine abuse can also lead to a condition called ketamine bladder syndrome, or K-bladder. Since ketamine is excreted as waste through the urinary system, regular ketamine use can lead to severe irritation to the bladder and urinary tract. K-bladder is often marked by symptoms of severe abdominal pain, an intense or frequent desire to urinate, blood in the urine, and incontinence. K-bladder can be treated using certain medications and surgery, but damages to the urinary system are not always reversible.

Most individuals on low doses of the drug become sedated and experience hallucinations, in addition to:

  • An increased heart rate
  • Issues with coordination
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Twitchy muscles
  • Impaired vision
  • Dizziness
  • Delirium or confusion
  • Memory loss
  • Changes in perceptions of sound and color
  • Memory loss

Many individuals also experience aggressive or violent behavior as a side effect, which can be a strange turn from the sedative effects of the drug. Extremely high doses can create what is known as a K-hole, causing an out-of-body experience and full sedation. Many people abuse the drug to experience this effect, but it often occurs just before overdose, which makes it extremely dangerous. Large amounts of ketamine can cause respiratory depression, which can become deadly.

What are the Signs of Ketamine Addiction?

Signs and symptoms of ketamine abuse can be intense and easy to recognize. Ketamine is short-acting but produces a high that lasts up to one hour. People who are high on ketamine may slur their speech, lose motor coordination, and move more slowly than usual. They may also appear confused, and fail to respond to pain stimuli.

Though ketamine does carry a moderate risk for physical dependence, ketamine addiction tends to be more psychological than physical. Ketamine addiction is often characterized by a person’s compulsive urges to use ketamine despite negative consequences, such as problems with the law, missed work, and decline in health. People who struggle with ketamine addiction may experience a range of psychological health problems including the onset of depression and mental illness, violent behavior, and mood swings.

As a recognized “party drug” or “club drug,” ketamine is often used and mixed with alcohol and other substances. Those who struggle with drug dependence and who use ketamine with other substances are more likely to be dependent on those other substances, and not ketamine. However, those who abuse ketamine for its dissociative effects can become addicted to those sensations, and develop a psychological addiction to the drug.

What to do if Someone You Love is Abusing Ketamine

Ketamine should only be used in a controlled medical setting where doctors can supervise use and lower the risk of abuse, dependence, and complications like choking and stopped breathing. People who obtain ketamine from the streets may be at high risk for an overdose, since dealers may mix or cut the drug with other deadlier substances like the opioid fentanyl. However, those who are unknowingly exposed to ketamine by itself in a club or recreational setting are unlikely to develop problems with dependence and addiction.

If someone you love is abusing ketamine, here are a few steps you can follow:

  • Offer your support – tell them you love them and are here to listen without judgment
  • Set boundaries – if they are refusing treatment, you may have to set hard boundaries to protect yourself. Let them know you cannot see them until they get the help they need.
  • Be careful not to enable – preventing them from experiencing the consequences of their addiction, or denying that they have a problem are two troublesome forms of enabling. If you want to help them out financially, consider buying food for them instead of giving them money. You can also help by paying for addiction treatment.
  • Set up an intervention – if they are in serious trouble due to their addiction but refuse to get help, an intervention may be a good way to shine a light on the problem. Speak to an addition specialist to help set an intervention up.

Which Treatment Options are Available for Ketamine Addiction?

Ketamine addiction is commonly treated using detox and therapy, though most patients will spend the majority of time in therapy to treat psychological symptoms of ketamine abuse. Detox helps patients overcome physical dependence on ketamine and other substances, while therapy treats patients for feelings of agitation, depression, and other mental health disorders, as well as negative thoughts and behaviors driving addiction.

Drug detox treatments for ketamine can be safely conducted in an inpatient or residential rehab setting where patients can be monitored 24/7 by medical staff who can reduce complications. Detox treatments may vary depending on whether patients are using ketamine with other substances. For instance, patients using ketamine with opioids like heroin and fentanyl may receive medications that can relieve opioid withdrawal symptoms like nausea, insomnia, and headaches.

Behavioral therapy, group therapy, and 12-step support groups are just some therapies offered at drug rehab centers to help patients overcome ketamine addiction. These therapies can teach patients how to view their ketamine abuse with healthier attitudes and beliefs, rather than the dangerous ones that influenced them to become addicted in the first place. People who need help recovering from ketamine addiction can benefit significantly from 90-day treatment programs at drug rehab centers, where extensive therapy can be used to treat co-occurring disorders like depression.

Medical Reviewer
Luke Prest, MD
Board Certified Pediatrician
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Luke Prest, MD, is a board-certified Pediatrician who provides comprehensive care, including management of mental health conditions, to children and adolescents. Through his medical training, he developed a deep understanding of the diagnosis, treatment, and management of various disorders, and remains committed to staying up-to-date with the latest medical advances and best practices in medicine.