What Is Ketamine?

Ketamine is a synthetic animal and human anaesthetic that comes in liquid and powder forms, which gives short-term, dissociative effects. When used recreationally, ketamine addiction can occur quickly. Because it does not induce withdrawal symptoms when it leaves your body, ketamine addiction is frequently not seen as a risk. But ketamine is psychologically addictive, and it is possible to become tolerant to ketamine with time and regular use. 

Illicit ketamine is made and sold by dealers in a powder form referred to as “special K”. This might be mixed with other addictive substances such as oxycodone or other types of opioids — these added elements can cause a physical dependence, which is often mistaken for ketamine addiction.

One prescription medication that contains ketamine is Esketamine nasal spray, which was licensed in the UK by the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) in December 2019. It is used to tackle the symptoms of treatment-resistant depression but is also sold on the black market.

Ketamine Effects

The effects of ketamine tend to last between 30 minutes and an hour. When taken in small amounts, it can make you feel energetic and produce a feeling of euphoria. In larger quantities, ketamine has a sedative effect, and you may feel calm, relaxed and detached from reality. This is what often produces a psychological ketamine addiction, as users want to take it more and more to experience these feelings. 

Another effect of ketamine is a partial or complete loss of control over movement — an effect often called a “K-hole”.  In large quantities, the drug is also likely to cause amnesia, which may be temporary or permanent. Sometimes, people refer to experiencing flashbacks of small snippets of time, but these will be disjointed and confusing. This is why ketamine is also used as a date rape drug.

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What Is Ketamine Cut With?

Typically, ketamine is cut with substances such as chalk to make it go further, but it may also be cut with other drugs, including:

  • Acetaminophen (also known as paracetamol)
  • Aspirin
  • Opioid-based prescription medicines
  • Procaine (a local anaesthetic).

Mixing Ketamine with Alcohol and Other Drugs

Combining alcohol, opioid-based drugs, and ketamine increases the chance you will pass out, stop breathing, go into a coma and/or vomit, which may result in death from choking. When ketamine is combined with other stimulants, such as crystal meth, amphetamine (speed) or cocaine, you significantly increase the potential of suffering from a heart attack.

As many other drugs are also physically addictive, mixing ketamine with them can make you think you have a physical ketamine addiction when you are, in fact, dependent on the other drugs you have unknowingly taken.  

What Causes Ketamine Addiction?

Ketamine abuse refers to using ketamine for any purpose other than under the direction of a doctor. You may only use ketamine occasionally and be able to go weeks and months without it; this type of use would generally be referred to as ketamine abuse rather than a full-blown ketamine addiction. There are two types of addiction, physical and psychological, although with many drugs, both will occur together.

Addiction is defined by a compulsive need to obtain and use a drug, which you are not in control of, regardless of the reasons you take the drug. Ketamine addiction is sometimes not considered a problem because you do not experience withdrawal symptoms when it leaves your body. However, this doesn’t mean it is ketamine isn’t psychologically addictive. Tolerance can be developed to ketamine, which can result in the desire to use more of it to achieve the same effects. 

This is often the beginning of what many users mistake for physical dependence and ketamine addiction. But it is the psychological aspect of the addiction that causes regular use, obsessing over when you can next take it and prioritising it over other activities and responsibilities.

Does Ketamine Damage the Brain?

Research has shown that ketamine increases dopamine levels and activates certain neural pathways while making others switch off temporarily. Although it is effective for treating moderate to severe treatment-resistant depression, studies into the long-term effects of ketamine, when used recreationally, have indicated that it reduces the brain’s structure and function and can negatively affect executive cognitive function.

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Signs and Symptoms of Ketamine Use

Signs and symptoms of ketamine use can be both psychological and physical and include:

  • Dilated pupils and involuntary eye movements
  • Suppressed appetite
  • Sweating and increased heart rate
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Anxiety and panic
  • Hallucinations (seeing or hearing things that are not there)
  • Blurred vision
  • Slurred speech or being unable to speak
  • Immobility. 

Sign of a Ketamine Overdose

An overdose on ketamine can be difficult to recognise, but you may be used to seeing or experiencing signs of a ketamine overdose on a regular basis. 

Always call 999 If you experience or see someone:

  • Unconscious
  • Having convulsions
  • Unable to move.

How Do I Know If I Have a Ketamine Addiction?

Although ketamine is not physically addictive, it can be highly psychologically addictive. If you desire to escape reality, ketamine is an inexpensive substance with relatively reliable and short-lasting effects. This can make it difficult to stop using, even if you do not have any withdrawal symptoms.  Signs that you might have developed what is referred to as a psychological addiction.

Signs of ketamine addiction include: 

  • Avoiding socialising and activities in order to take ketamine 
  • Feeling anxious when you are running out 
  • Worrying about when you can get more
  • Making up excuses to be alone so you can take ketamine.

Accepting you are psychologically addicted to a drug can be harder than recognising you have a physical addiction — but it’s important to understand that a psychological addiction can be just as powerful as a physical one. 

How Does Ketamine Addiction Affect Life?

Ketamine addiction can affect your life in many ways. Although when you first start using ketamine, it may seem harmless, and you may not believe it will have any impact on your life, it can be easy to use more and more. This might be to deal with difficult emotions, such as stress or anxiety, rather than just for “fun”. 

This can lead you to rely on the effect of ketamine and become anxious if you don’t have access to it, which are signs of ketamine addiction. As you begin to take ketamine to “cope” with everyday life, it can start to interfere with your motivation and desire to do other things.

Relationships, work, financial obligations and other responsibilities can all start to feel less important than the drug. Ketamine addiction may not be physical, but psychological addiction can be just as dangerous — and your life can be ruined by it. 

Ketamine Addiction Treatment

Ketamine addiction is challenging to overcome without help. You can speak with your GP or find your NHS local drug treatment service if you are using ketamine and want help through the NHS. 

The most effective treatment for ketamine addiction is intensive therapy to uncover the reasons behind why you started to abuse ketamine and help you to learn new, healthier ways to cope with your triggers. You can attend therapy as an outpatient or enter a residential rehab for a more intensive therapy plan, which combines structured days with recreational activities to help you develop new habits.

At Step-by-Step Recovery, we provide private residential rehab treatment in Essex for ketamine, drug, and alcohol addiction. Please complete our online assessment form or call our understanding team on 0800 170 1222 for free, confidential advice to help you or a loved one beat addiction permanently.

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Page revised in March 2023, by Matthew Reece, a certified PG cons diploma, a clinical Lead/ Senior counsellor at Step by Step Recovery.

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