What is ketamine?

Understand the signs and symptoms of ketamine addiction and the potential risks associated with its misuse.

Ophelia team
Ketamine and syringe
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Fact checked by
Erica Lyons, DNP, MS, APRN, FNP-BC

Ketamine has a variety of approved medical uses, but these days, it might be better known as a recreational drug used to produce dissociative effects. In 1970, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved ketamine for anesthetic use. Since then, it has become popular both as a club drug and for off-label prescriptions.  

Though medical professionals have been safely administering ketamine for decades, developing a dependence on the drug is a possible side effect, especially when misused. We’re here to get to the bottom of how this drug is used—both properly and improperly—and the signs and symptoms of ketamine addiction.  

What is ketamine used for in medicine?

In medicine, ketamine is primarily used as a fast-acting anesthetic administered through intravenous or intramuscular injections. Unlike other anesthetics, it increases heart rate and blood pressure without lowering the patient’s breathing rate, meaning it can help prevent blood loss in medical emergencies. 

Ketamine is also gaining ground as an off-label treatment in the mental health field. Off-label prescription of a drug is when doctors prescribe an FDA-approved medication for a purpose other than the original intended use. Physicians may prescribe ketamine for off-label use to treat some conditions, such as:

  • Pain management
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Suicidal ideation

Ketamine’s medical uses also extend to animals since the anesthetic effects work on animals as well as humans. As with other veterinary drugs, ketamine is a controlled substance subject to strict regulations. The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) notes that illegally distributed ketamine is often diverted from legitimate sources, like veterinary clinics

Recreational ketamine use

Recreationally, ketamine is a popular dissociative drug that creates hallucinogenic effects. Some common street names for ketamine include Special K, Kit Kat, Vitamin K, and Super K. 

Using ketamine can lead to a trance-like state or feelings of bliss. Those who use the drug recreationally may experience an out-of-body experience or changes to their visual and auditory perception. These effects will typically appear rapidly and only last between 30 and 60 minutes as opposed to the hours-long effects of similar drugs, like LSD and PCP. Because ketamine is known to cause disorientation and unconsciousness, it has been used as a date rape drug to facilitate sexual assault. 

Using ketamine can produce some additional side effects, including:

  • Dizziness
  • Unconsciousness
  • Amnesia
  • Disorientation
  • Sedation
  • Hallucinations
  • Immobility
  • Agitation
  • Pain relief
  • Nausea

The severity of these ketamine side effects can vary significantly from one patient to the next. Some of the factors that determine the side effects someone experiences include their age, the type of ketamine they use and how they use it, the dosage they take, and any other medications they use. 

Forms of ketamine

Ketamine comes in many different forms. For medical uses, it is available as an injection and as a nasal spray. Esketamine, a nasal application available only under medical supervision, is gaining traction as a tightly controlled option for people living with treatment-resistant depression. Medical professionals can inject the drug either intravenously or, less commonly, directly into the patient’s muscle. Recreational ketamine is typically either a clear liquid or a white or off-white powder. 

Signs and symptoms of ketamine addiction

Those considering ketamine use, either medically or recreationally, may wonder—is ketamine addictive? Addiction is a known side effect of using ketamine, particularly outside of a clinical setting. The vast majority of ketamine addiction occurs in those who are misusing it recreationally, which can lead to tolerance and dependency on the drug.  

Some signs of ketamine addiction to look out for include:

  • Taking larger and larger doses over time
  • Being unable to reduce your use of ketamine despite wanting to
  • Feeling strong urges to use ketamine
  • Neglecting work, family, or educational responsibilities as a result of ketamine use
  • Spending more time using ketamine or recovering from using the drug

Ketamine addiction has notable mental and physical symptoms. Since the drug can produce hallucinations, it can also lead to paranoia, confusion, and nightmares. The physical symptoms vary widely and include:

  • Seizures
  • Decreased appetite
  • Chills
  • Tiredness
  • Restlessness
  • Sweating and shaking

These symptoms can be very disruptive to a person’s life and even threaten their long-term health. Ketamine use alone is unlikely to produce a fatal overdose, but it can be fatal when paired with other drugs, like alcohol or LSD.


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