Can Ketamine Be Abused and Cause Withdrawal?
Ketamine is defined as a dissociative anesthetic. In addition to sedating the user, it produces a kind of out-of-body experience wherein the user feels detached from the self and the surrounding environment. It distorts perceptions of sight and sound and can make it difficult to move. At high doses, the user often feels as though a near-death experience is happening. However, people also report experiencing a state of utter bliss and happiness at this level, making it a very appealing drug to many.
Ketamine has been classified as a Schedule III controlled substance due to its potential for abuse and addiction. It can be abused in a number of ways, including via injection, snorting, or orally. It’s generally sold as a fine white powder after being converted from a liquid state. It has been used as a “date rape drug” and slipped into people’s drinks to sedate them to the point that they can hardly move.
In medical settings, ketamine is often used to sedate children who have had adverse reactions to other anesthetic medications, as well as in radiation and burn therapy. It’s useful in situations where sedation is necessary but stronger anesthetics may be too much, but due to its abuse potential, its use in hospital settings is rare. It is more commonly used in veterinary clinics, and there have been many documented cases of these offices being robbed specifically for their ketamine stock.
Who Abuses Ketamine?
Ketamine arrived on the recreational drug scene in the early to mid 1980s. It became part of the nightclub scene and was popular in certain dance cultures, including raves, originally to increase the effects of MDMA (ecstasy). Recreational use has continued to grow since then, even after it was given the Schedule III classification in 1999.
Today, it remains a party drug, often used by high school students and young adults in order to achieve a hallucinatory, dream-like state.
According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, the highest rate of use is among the 18-25 age group at 0.2 percent, with the average rate of use among anyone 12 or older at 0.1 percent. It tends to act quickly, especially if injected or snorted, and the most intense effects last for an hour or less, making it ideal for a quick party high that doesn’t incapacitate the user for an extended period of time.
Ketamine may also have a high potential for abuse among those who are attempting to self-medicate depression or suicidal ideation due to its ability to so quickly alleviate these states. Psychiatrists are even studying the potential of ketamine to be used as an immediate remedy for suicidal urges and deep depression. A patient could come into a hospital feeling suicidal and be rapidly lifted out of that state of depression and despair with a controlled dose of ketamine. Once that person is feeling better, the root cause of those feelings could be effectively addressed, and an outpatient program of therapy, long-term medication options, and other treatments could be planned.
These theories have given rise to ketamine clinics across the US that use the substance to attempt to treat depression over a series of “infusions” that last for several days. This kind of treatment has not been thoroughly tested, however, and the potential for addiction remains a concern.
Signs of an Addiction
Ketamine has the potential to lead to tolerance and addiction. Once an addiction develops and an individual is using the drug most of the time, it can become easy to spot since its effects on the state of mind are so intense.
Signs of a ketamine addiction can include:
- Frequent state of distraction and/or drowsiness
- Difficulty concentrating
- Fatigue or lack of motivation
- Reduced ability to feel physical pain
- Loss of coordination
- Slurred speech
- Redness of the skin
- Bladder pain
Any kind of addiction is characterized by cravings, general preoccupation with the drug, and neglecting family, friends, school and/or work in favor of obtaining and taking the drug. Addicted individuals may try to quit after use of the substance causes social, monetary, or even legal consequences, but may not be able to do so on their own. Thankfully, there are over 14,500 addiction treatment centers in the United States alone that can help individuals to quit.
Ketamine addiction is a serious problem. Not only does the substance make it difficult to function in day-to-day life, it can have serious long-term health effects, particularly in relation to the urinary tract. One study found that mice given ketamine on a regular basis were prone to kidney pathology. Long-term used can also cause neurocognitive impairments, especially in memory.
These cognitive deficits can make it harder for the individual to realize an addiction has developed and that treatment is needed. Because of this, inpatient treatment following detox is often recommended for those addicted to ketamine.
Ketamine withdrawal symptoms are not life-threatening and generally not as severe as with some drugs, being purely psychological, but they are still unpleasant and come with strong cravings. However, weaning oneself off the drug does not work well due to its effects on the brain, especially when it comes to memory.
Ketamine has even been known to cause amnesia, so an individual may not be able to remember how much was taken and when. This can increase the risk of overdose, though overdose deaths from ketamine are rare – only 23 deaths from ketamine overdose were identified in the UK between the years 1993 and 2006, with the vast majority involving other substances.
In an inpatient facility, the detox process will be closely monitored, and any withdrawal symptoms can be treated with safe medications.
Ketamine does not interact with many other substances. Once the drug has left the individual’s system, cravings and cognitive effects typically last for weeks or months. Checking into an inpatient rehabilitation program that lasts for several weeks will allow clients to completely avoid temptation while learning the skills they need to cope with addiction in a safe, understanding environment.
Clients can often benefit from supportive therapy such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy or Dialectic Behavior Therapy, as getting off ketamine can produce a range of emotional symptoms. It can be difficult to give up that feeling of bliss, and clients may wonder how they can ever feel happy again. If ketamine abuse was part of an attempt to self-medicate for depression, this will, of course, need to be properly treated with therapy and safe medications.
When an intoxicating substance is used regularly or heavily for an extended period of time, physical addiction becomes more and more likely. Physical addiction occurs when an individual’s body and brain chemistry begin to adjust to the constant presence of the substance. If the drug in question causes the brain to release certain chemicals or neurotransmitters, the brain will often stop producing those on its own. Then, when the use of the substance stops, there’s a serious deficit in those natural chemicals, causing withdrawal symptoms.
Ketamine withdrawal symptoms typically last 4-6 days, starting around 24-72 hours after the last dose. Symptoms can include:
- Loss of appetite
- Anxiety and depression
- Rapid or irregular heartbeat
The biggest risk when it comes to ketamine withdrawal is depression that can lead to suicidal urges. This is especially true for those who have attempted to use ketamine to treat underlying depression issues. Losing that escape into bliss as well as the reduced sensitivity of the receptors in the brain related to the body’s natural antidepressants can cause a sudden spiral into deep depression and suicidal ideation.
In spite of this, the prognosis for those attempting to get on the road to recovery from ketamine use is quite good, especially compared to other addictive substances. Because ketamine use is rather rare, it’s easy to avoid temptation by simply avoiding the nightlife scene where it’s commonly found. With treatment for depression and long-term commitment to support groups and a healthier lifestyle, anyone addicted to ketamine can lead a long, healthy life.