Ketamine belongs to a class of drugs known as dissociative anesthetics. Other drugs in this category include phencyclidine (PCP), DXM and nitrous oxide (laughing gas). These types of drugs can make a person feel detached from sensations and surroundings as if floating outside the body.
Ketamine is sometimes used to induce and maintain general anesthesia, and in lower doses can relieve pain. It is most likely to be used for short-lasting diagnostic and surgical interventions such as dental extractions, and in procedures involving children.
In a medical setting, ketamine is either injected into a muscle or administered through an intravenous (IV) line. When used as an anesthetic in humans, it is used in combination with another drug to prevent hallucinations.
With recreational use, ketamine can be taken orally as a pill, snorted, smoked with tobacco or marijuana or mixed into drinks. Most often, it is cooked into a white powder for snorting. Regardless of how it is ingested, its effects begin within a few minutes and last for less than an hour. When taken orally, ketamine can cause severe nausea and vomiting.
Ketamine is most often used in veterinary medicine. It can be used in humans before, during and after surgery to relieve postoperative pain. The drug has also been used for intensive care management of prolonged epileptic seizures.
Ketamine is considered relatively safe because an individual’s protective airway reflexes are preserved and the drug does not depress the circulatory system like other anesthetic medications. However, patients have in some instances reported disturbing sensations when awakening from ketamine anesthesia.
Other potential medical uses of ketamine are currently being researched, particularly in the areas of treatment-resistant depression and substance use disorders.
Effects of using ketamine
Ketamine use can have a wide variety of effects, including:
- Changes in perceptions of color or sound
- Dissociation from body or identity
- Difficulty thinking or learning
- Dilated pupils
- Involuntary muscle movements
- Slurred speech
Ketamine health risks
Ketamine can render an individual oblivious to their environment, putting users not only at risk of accidental injury to themselves but also making them more vulnerable to assault by others.
Ketamine can cause an increase in intracranial (brain) and blood pressure. Medical use of ketamine is contraindicated in individuals who have a brain lesion (tumor), brain swelling and glaucoma. The drug is used with caution in those with coronary artery disease, increased blood pressure, thyroid disease or with chronic alcoholism or acute alcohol intoxication.
It is difficult to regulate a “dose” of ketamine, and there is only a slight difference in dosage between obtaining the drug’s desired effects and an overdose. Frequent illegal use of ketamine can lead to serious mental disorders and major physical harm to the bladder known as ketamine-induced ulcerative cystitis.
Ketamine is a Class III controlled substance that can cause dependence, tolerance and withdrawal symptoms with prolonged use. When people stop taking ketamine, they may experience depression, anxiety, insomnia and flashbacks.
Chronic users have been known to “binge” their ketamine use in an attempt to achieve the dissociative, euphoric effects of their early first use.
Treatment for adverse reactions to ketamine
When emergency care is sought for ketamine poisoning, the drug’s effects usually wear off by the time a medical provider sees the intoxicated individual. Combining ketamine with other substances such as alcohol can increase the sedative effects and can lead to a fatal overdose.
Ketamine is an anesthetic medication that has a niche medical use in select populations and settings in both human and animal patients. It is important to distinguish the valid medical uses from the non-medical, recreational use of the drug.
When properly administered by a trained medical professional, ketamine is a safe and valuable medication. When used in recreational settings, however, abusing ketamine can yield unpredictable physical and mental health results. Ketamine misuse can result in lasting medical and psychological damage and, in some cases, death.