Ketamine: Uses, Effects, Hazards & Overdose

Often referred to as a “horse tranquiliser, “Ketamine was originally intended for use as a veterinary anaesthetic and is currently used in human and veterinary procedures. But due to its psychoactive and stimulant properties, Ketamine has become an increasingly popular street drug and is known as K, Ket, Special K, Vitamin K, Green K, Super C, and Kit Kat.

Are you worried that you or someone you care about might be addicted to ketamine? This article will help you understand the key facts about ketamine addiction, including how it affects the body and mind, how to tell if someone might be addicted when to seek professional help and the types of treatment available. 

How Ketamine Affects the Body

Ketamine is abused for its psychoactive effects. An immediate side-effect of Ketamine abuse is dissociation—a psychedelic, dreamlike sense of being detached from one’s body, sometimes accompanied by hallucinations and mild euphoria.

Some ketamine users report upsetting and frightening experiences similar to a “bad trip” that one might experience on LSD, known as a ‘K-hole’. When in this state, users will feel completely dissociated from their bodies. They may be incapacitated, unresponsive, uncoordinated, with erratic movements and nausea. Because of these effects, Ketamine has also been abused as a date rape drug.

At smaller doses, it can produce feelings of dissociation from one’s body. The user may enter a dreamlike state, and experience feelings of euphoria. At higher doses, the user may enter what is known as a ‘K-hole’. In this state, they will experience intense hallucinations which can be frightening. The user also experiences paralysis, and the inability to feel pain or respond to external stimuli.

Is Ketamine Addictive?

Known widely as “horse tranquilliser”, ketamine is a potent drug that is designed to be used as a sedation and anaesthetic medication by veterinarians and medical doctors. It is also sometimes prescribed by pain specialists as an analgesic (pain-relief) when opioids are ineffective. When prescribed by medical professionals the dosage is gradual and supervised. There’s a good reason for this – ketamine can be both physically and psychologically addictive. 

Physical Signs of Ketamine Abuse

Someone who is abusing Ketamine may show signs of unusual calmness and immobility, along with an inability to respond to stimuli. This is due to its anaesthetic properties. Breathing may be slowed, speech slurred, vision blurred and pupils dilated, with involuntary muscle movements. Ketamine’s hallucinogenic effects are typically short-lived (about an hour); however, cognitive effects, including confusion and memory loss, appear to last longer and may persist for 24 hours or more. Ketamine has stimulant and psychoactive properties. Depending on the dosage, users can experience an almost immediate onset of effects, including:

  • Feelings of sedation
  • Relief from anxiety and depression
  • Euphoria 
  • An intense sense of relaxation
  • Hallucinations – distorted perception of sight and sound that can make it difficult to move
  • Dissociation – a form of physical or psychological detachment that can feel like an out-of-body experience.

Even at low doses, users can experience mild euphoria, disassociation or a dream-like state – sensations that make ketamine highly psychologically addictive. 

After the immediate effects of Ketamine have worn off, users might feel depressed, experience loss of memory, lack of cognition or understanding and be extremely anxious.

The “K-Hole”

Taken in high doses, ketamine can induce an intense detached state known as the “K-hole”. While many take the drug for its hallucinogenic and sedative effects, a K-hole shuts off communication between brain and body, often leaving the user unable to move or speak. Short of a ketamine overdose, this state can appear zombie-like, leaving the user drooling and sometimes paralysed. Some describe the psychedelic experience as “blissful”; others find it terrifying and dangerous. However it is experienced, the user can be at significant risk of accident or serious injury while in this frozen state.

What Makes Ketamine Addictive?

The attraction of ketamine lies in its ability to get the user high very quickly, making it well suited to the club scene. And as a dissociative anaesthetic, ketamine’s tranquillisation effects can be attractive to individuals who seek relief from mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety. 

However, the highs are short-lived and tolerance builds up quickly. The user has to take the drug in increasingly higher quantities to obtain the effects that they crave. This psychological aspect of addiction is brought about by a physical change in the body. 

In addition, with regular use, brain cells adjust to the chemical changes that ketamine produces, creating a new kind of “normal”. If there is a drop in the amount of ketamine entering the body, the brain signals to the body that it needs more. These signals are experienced as unpleasant withdrawal symptoms such as:

  • Agitation
  • Confusion
  • Psychosis 
  • Loss of motor skills
  • Anger or rage 
  • Nausea 
  • Impaired respiratory and cardiac functions
  • Insomnia 
  • Shakes
  • Hearing loss
  • Fatigue 

For someone who has become physically and psychologically addicted to ketamine, it is incredibly challenging to break the cycle of craving the drug. Dealing with the challenges of withdrawal adds another layer of complication to achieving abstinence.

Ketamine Withdrawal

For many struggling with ketamine addiction, a common question is, “What does withdrawal feel like?”. Facing the very initial stages of ketamine withdrawal from chronic abuse often triggers the user to take more of the substance, reinforcing psychological dependence. However, supervised detox can mitigate some of the worst side effects.

Ketamine withdrawal symptoms include:

  • Depression
  • Hallucinations
  • Psychotic episodes 
  • Agitation
  • Cravings
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Sweating 
  • Fast or irregular heartbeat

Ketamine detox programmes are designed to alleviate the worst withdrawal symptoms while guiding the user through recovery.

Although ketamine withdrawal can produce some mild physical symptoms, it’s considered far more psychologically addictive. Any version of physical addiction is mainly relevant to those who have become addicted to ketamine through a prescription for pain relief.

Consequences of Ketamine Addiction

The implications of ketamine addiction are far-reaching, affecting the user, their family and friends, and even the wider public. It’s not uncommon for users to resort to stealing to get their fix. And simply being caught in possession of ketamine without a prescription can result in a fine or prison sentence. The dissociative effects often result in loss of interest in work or responsibilities, poor performance and withdrawal from family and friends. The cycle exacerbates existing mental health problems, often resulting in ketamine becoming the user’s only source of pleasure and relief.²

The health consequences of chronic ketamine abuse can be devastating. Bladder and kidney damage are the most commonly reported effects, with some users even having to have their bladder surgically removed. Other long-term effects include damage to the liver, heart and respiratory system. Chronic abuse can also result in brain damage, permanent psychosis and schizophrenia.

Is Ketamine Psychoactive?

Ketamine has psychoactive properties, meaning it affects the mind and nervous system.   It acts as both a hallucinogen and a stimulant. By targeting glutamate (an excitatory chemical messenger) and activating opiate receptors, ketamine influences feelings, thoughts, mood, behaviour and awareness.³

UK Government Classification of Ketamine

Ketamine is a Class B drug in the UK. Classification of drugs is based not only on the danger to the individual but also the wider public and society in general, with cocaine, heroin and hallucinogens such as LSD categorised as Class A.

Until 2014, ketamine was a Class C drug under UK law, along with diazepam and anabolic steroids (sale of). However, due to mounting evidence of the physical and psychological damage it causes, it was reclassified as a Class B drug. The consequences of being caught in possession of ketamine are up to five years in prison, an unlimited fine, or both.  Supply can mean a jail term of up to fourteen years.

Signs & Symptoms of Ketamine Abuse

If you are concerned that someone you care about might be using ketamine or showing symptoms of ketamine addiction, there are some common signs to look out for. 

Signs that a person is high on ketamine include:

  • Dilated pupils
  • Slow breathing
  • Slurred speech
  • Involuntary muscle movements or slow movement
  • Inability to respond to stimuli
  • Hallucinating
  • Appearing to be in a trance-like state
  • Involuntary rapid eye movement 
  • Nausea
  • Disorientation
  • Distorted visual and auditory perception

Once the effects have worn off, users may experience depression, memory loss, anxiety and cognitive issues for more than 24 hours afterwards. 

Long Term Risks of Ketamine Abuse

Ketamine is addictive and users will develop tolerance and need ever-increasing amounts to achieve a high.

Long-term abuse of ketamine may result in:

Users may also experience flashbacks up to several weeks after using ketamine.

If high doses are taken or if it is used with other substances such as benzodiazepines or opiates, it can result in death.

Ketamine Bladder Syndrome

Long-term ketamine use can have serious health implications. The most widely reported health problem arising from ketamine abuse is damage to the bladder and urinary tract. The prevalence of this problem has caused it to be named ‘Ketamine bladder syndrome’ or ‘K bladder’. Untreated ‘K bladder’ can lead to surgery or in extreme cases, require complete removal of the damaged bladder.

In addition to these issues, increasing evidence links ketamine use to liver damage and abdominal pain. Heavy ketamine users will likely develop a tolerance to the drug, meaning that they have to take larger doses to get the same effects. This increases the likelihood that over time, they will suffer serious damage to their health.

Personal and Behavioural Symptoms of Ketamine Addiction:

  • You find that you are taking ketamine regularly and can’t do certain things without it
  • Most days are spend using ketamine or recovering from the side effects of it
  • You spend an excessive amount of time thinking about ketamine and planning how you will get it
  • You feel anxious at the thought of quitting ketamine or being in certain situations without it and you go to great lengths to obtain it
  • Taking ketamine has become more important than friendships or activities that you use to enjoy and you are worried that drug use has taken over your life
  • Close friends, family, colleagues have noticed changes in your appearance hygiene and self-care
  • You become secretive, defensive and dishonest about the amount of ketamine you use
  • You keep taking ketamine, even after negative experiences as a result of drug abuse
  • You experiment by mixing ketamine with other addictive drugs or alcohol to get more of a high
  • You become more isolated from loved ones and begin to socialise only with people who have a lifestyle of taking ketamine and other drugs
  • You haven’t been eating properly and are losing or gaining a noticeable amount of weight
  • Your behaviour has changed as a result of your ketamine use and you are losing your friendships
  • You are not facing up to your daily responsibilities, instead you are neglecting things that were once important to you e.g. paying bills, getting to work on time, spending time with your children
  • You are trying to fund your addiction by stealing money or selling valuables
  • You are regularly late for work due to hangovers from ketamine and a drug-taking lifestyle – your work performance falls, you make mistakes at work due to your drug misuse, colleagues and superiors begin to make comments
  • You are getting into trouble with drug dealers over payment, dealers are offering you stronger drugs
  • You are getting into trouble with the law
  • You wake in the morning and don’t know what happened the night before or you don’t know where you are or who you are with due to your ketamine abuse
  • You have a variety of paraphernalia related to taking ketamine and drugs e.g. needles, syringes, pipes
  • You are engaging in reckless behaviours when under the influence of ketamine, you are taking risks that you would not normally do without drugs
  • You may have contemplated suicide as a result of your ketamine misuse.

When To Get Help for Ketamine Addiction

Addiction, or substance use disorder (SUD), is a complex relapsing disorder that is recognised by The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). While it is difficult to predict if an individual will develop an addiction, there are certain risk factors that can make it more likely. 

Known risk factors include:

  • Aggressive behaviour in childhood
  • Neglect from parents or guardian
  • Experimenting with drugs or other substances
  • Having access to drugs at school
  • Poverty in the community
  • Peer pressure.

Other factors that can play a role in a person developing an addiction are:

  • Genetics – people who have a first-degree relative (parent, child, sibling) who struggles with addiction may have a higher risk of developing an addiction themselves.
  • Environment – exposure to environmental conditions such as peer pressure, parents who use drugs or who are engaged in criminal activity, drug use in the community, or poor academic achievement.
  • Childhood trauma – adverse childhood experiences such as abuse, neglect, parental divorce or the death of a close family member. 
  • Mental health – individuals with a mental health disorder, especially if undiagnosed, may use drugs to self-medicate.

Using vs Addiction

Drugs affect individuals differently. For some, infrequent use of ketamine can remain just that.  For others, the first high paves the way for a life of misery and internal conflict if ketamine addiction treatment isn’t sought. The reality is that we don’t truly know what makes one person addicted and another not. While certain risk factors increase the chance of addiction, the outcome from person to person is unpredictable. 

However, repeated use of psychoactive substances increases the chance of long-term changes occurring in the brain affecting judgement, decision-making and behaviour. Once at this stage, the chronic user has less and less control over the desire to take the drug. Over the longer term, other factors reinforce the habit, including the need to counter ketamine withdrawal symptoms, the need for higher doses when tolerance grows, and the circumstances in which the user finds him or herself to fund the habit.

How is Ketamine Addiction Treated? 

Ketamine addiction treatment requires a multimodal approach to aid successful recovery. There are different treatment options available to suit individual circumstances. 

Intervention

An addiction intervention is a professional-led meeting between concerned loved ones, friends, colleagues, and the addict themselves. A professional interventionist guides the addict and family through a structured process designed to open lines of communication, challenge denial, and ultimately help the addict to take their first steps toward ketamine addiction treatment.

Support Groups

For many struggling with ketamine addiction, support groups are a safe first step toward ketamine addiction treatment. Shown to increase chances of recovery, they’re an accessible way to meet others in a similar position and a safe space for discussing common issues without the fear of being judged.

Counselling/Therapy

Individual therapy is designed to explore and focus on addressing personal challenges and circumstances that may be contributing to ketamine addiction. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), motivational enhancement therapy (MET), and dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT) are used to examine underlying issues with the goal of achieving sustained recovery.

Outpatient Rehab

Outpatient rehab is geared towards high-functioning addicts with some control over their ketamine addiction. Successful treatment relies on the user attending rehab regularly and taking prescribed steps as part of everyday life.

Residential Rehab

Residential rehab is the highest form of ketamine addiction treatment available. The programme is tailored to the individual and takes a holistic approach for sustained recovery. Treatment plans deal with:

  • Detox and withdrawal 
  • Cravings
  • Temptation to use
  • Relapse prevention

Detox

At Castle Craig, we help people with ketamine addiction get on the road to recovery with the aim of quitting drugs for good and enjoying a drug-free and fulfilling life. Your treatment begins with a series of thorough assessments by our multidisciplinary team of Consultant Psychiatrists, doctors, nurses and therapists. The results of the assessments help to shape your personalised ketamine addiction treatment plan and drug detox.

After a period of detox, the length of which depends on the severity of your ketamine addiction and other drug addiction, you will be free of any drugs and alcohol. This prepares you to fully engage with the therapy programme.

During ketamine withdrawal, heavy users will experience psychological symptoms such as strong cravings for ketamine and other drugs. You may experience some mild physical symptoms such as faster heart rate and slowed down reaction times.

Throughout the detox period, you are monitored by our team of doctors and nurses. We are unique from other rehabs because we have a doctor onsite 24/7 in case any emergencies arise. You may be given medication to reduce the withdrawal symptoms depending on your physical and psychological condition and other drugs you are detoxing from.

Ketamine bladder (or ket-bladder) is a huge health hazard for anyone taking ketamine. Read here about what ketamine does to the bladder. The best thing you can do to stop ketamine bladder is to stop taking ketamine. If you are struggling to quit ketamine then you might be addicted and need a specialist assessment and diagnosis, followed by rehab.

Being at a residential rehab clinic has many advantages in ketamine detox. You are not around the influences of friends who take ketamine and drugs and the ketamine addiction triggers from your home environment. This makes it easier for you to stay away from ketamine and drugs and focus on your therapy.

Residential Rehab for Addiction

Our residential rehab programme helps patients to achieve long-lasting sobriety from ketamine and other drugs. Our intensive programme uses specialised addictive therapies including:

Our rehab programme lasts for 4 weeks and includes psychiatric assessments, detoxification, medical care and our evidence-based therapy programme. Therapy and rehab treatment is tailored to meet your individual needs according to your history of ketamine use and co-occurring mental health disorders.

We take a holistic approach to care, as we consider spiritual well-being as important as psychological health. Our complementary therapies help to emotionally rebalance you and include:

Rehab Length of Stay

Evidence shows that the longer you stay in residential rehab, receiving intensive therapy, the greater the chances of successful recovery. This is why our drug rehab programme is 28 days. This gives you the chance for in-depth assessments, detoxification, and a full therapy programme. Should we diagnose you with dual-diagnosis i.e. an accompanying mental health disorder, or more than one addiction, we recommend your stay is longer so you can fully recover and avoid relapse.

Call us now for help with ketamine addiction

Get your life back on track.

Get in touch today

To find out how we can help you, please telephone Castle Craig on our 24-Hour Helpline: 0808 271 7500. or click here to arrange a free addiction assessment or here for more information.

You're almost there.