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Is Ketamine Addictive?

Teen sitting on the ground with their head on their knees experiencing ketamine withdrawal  

Although there is some controversy about the addictive capacity of ketamine, a number of anecdotal reports and preliminary research findings suggest that it can be highly addictive when regularly abused.

When used clinically, ketamine effects include anesthesia and reductions in pain and inflammation. Unfortunately, the mechanisms that lead to the clinical effects can be exaggerated when large doses are taken and a person experiences a high. A ketamine high includes euphoria, a sense of dissociation and hallucinations.

What Is Ketamine?

Ketamine has several pharmacological properties but it is most commonly known for its ability to inhibit N-methyl-D-aspartic (NMDA) glutamate receptors in the brain. The consequences of NMDA receptor inhibition include anesthesia, making ketamine a valuable anesthetic.

Ketamine is unique among anesthetics in that it does not affect blood pressure, so it can be used in people suffering from severe blood loss (shock) or sepsis. Ketamine is valuable for pediatric sedation and anesthesia. The drug has been included in the World Health Organization’s Essential Medicine List since 1985. Ketamine uses also include treating depression, pain and inflammation and mild to moderate asthma attacks.

Is Ketamine Physically or Psychologically Addictive?

Ketamine addiction has recently become a serious concern, especially for parents. In recent years, the use of ketamine as a “club drug” has become popular and the consequences of regular ketamine use are becoming apparent as more people develop ketamine tolerance, dependence,and signs of addiction.

There is currently an incomplete understanding of ketamine addiction and its physical and psychological components. Physical addiction to a drug is characterized by physical withdrawal symptoms that become apparent when someone reduces or stops using the drug, and often include nausea/vomiting, trembling, sweating and dizziness. Psychological addiction is often characterized by withdrawal symptoms including cravings, preoccupation with the drug and an inability to focus.

Mounting evidence strongly supports that ketamine misuse and abuse can cause dependence and psychological addiction, but whether a case for physical addiction to ketamine can be made remains unclear.

What is clear is that ketamine abuse causes severe and widespread brain damage. Teenagers are at especially high risk for lifelong consequences of ketamine-induced brain damage because the brain develops in sequential steps. Appropriate development requires that each step be completed properly; if a developmental step is interrupted, every subsequent developmental step will be affected.

Research has shown that chronic ketamine abuse has a negative impact on learning and memory, as well as causing liver, kidney and bladder injury. Although teen-specific data is very preliminary, it is well known that teenage addiction has lifelong negative consequences and increases the risk of future substance use disorders. Although research remains ongoing, it is clear that teens who abuse ketamine are putting themselves at significant risk for serious short- and long-term consequences.

Ketamine Use Among Teens

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse’s Monitoring the Future (MTF) survey of high school students, ketamine use is relatively low among teenagers. Thankfully, the annual prevalence of ketamine use among 8th, 10th and 12th graders has been going down since 2000.

In 2000, 2% of students reported having used ketamine at least once over the course of the year. In 2011 (the latest year that MTF data is available), 1.2% of students had used ketamine in the past year.

Signs of Ketamine Addiction

Ketamine is a sedative anesthetic so acute ketamine side effects are often very clear, and include sedation, lethargy, slurred speech, and impaired motor function. Signs of chronic abuse may not be as clear, especially if the abuse has not been going on for very long. Teens who participate in the rave scene are more likely to abuse ketamine, and preoccupation with ketamine or discussion of the ketamine “k-hole” is a red flag.

General signs of teen addiction include changes in academic or extracurricular performance, new friend groups and abnormal or erratic behavior at home. Unfortunately, it can be difficult for parents to understand whether the unusual behavior their teen is suddenly exhibiting is a normal part of teenage development or a sign of drug use.

If you are concerned that your teen is abusing ketamine or struggling with a substance use disorder, Next Generation Village can help. We provide evidence-based rehab programs that are designed specifically to help teens overcome the challenges of substance use and get their lives back on track. Contact one of our experts today to learn how we can help your teen achieve success in recovery.

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