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Ketamine: Dangerous Drug or Miracle Cure?

While FDA-approved as an anesthetic for painful procedures, ketamine has many other identities — most of which are infamously threatening to life and health. But could it be that, if professionally administered, it also offers great hope to millions with certain mental health conditions? Perhaps.

As a psychedelic club drug, “Special K” (as ketamine is often called when used recreationally) produces hallucinations. It can send users into what’s known as a “K-hole” — a brain-scrambling, out-of-body experience.1

To critics of the drug, it is dangerous for several reasons. First of all, it’s addictive. Secondly, it can cause major physical problems. Memory could be affected. Bladder disease may occur. Even psychosis might result after prolonged use.2

Recently, however, many psychiatric experts have come to view ketamine as a game-changing drug. While much more testing is needed beyond the standard one-time anesthetic application, the National Institute on Mental Health has already touted ketamine as “the most important breakthrough in antidepressant treatment in decades.”2

Could Ketamine Prove to Be a Useful Tool in Treating Mental Health Disorders?

For the nearly five million patients in the US who have found the traditional selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors — like Prozac — to be ineffective, there is a desperate need for something that works.3 This need has led to ketamine clinics using this drug “off-label” to treat depression.

Whatever may be said of it, ketamine hydrochloride (as it is scientifically known) is giving many people new hope for a cure to their unrelenting melancholy and despair.3

While education generally provides the answers needed to make wise decisions, care providers must carefully weigh, case by case, the possible benefits of ketamine against the potential risks posed by patients with severe depression. Suicide is the biggest threat. Other precarious hazards may present themselves as well. Each patient is unique, so individual circumstances must be thoughtfully considered.2

How Ketamine Affects the Body Remains a Mystery

Experts aren’t exactly sure how ketamine works in the body, although they generally agree it doesn’t target the standard antidepressant route of serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine.

This chemical is thought to stimulate a series of receptors in the brain. In doing so, it kickstarts synaptic plasticity. That is, it ramps up the ability of parts of the brain to grow and change. While antidepressants typically increase plasticity, ketamine seems to do it much more quickly — and more powerfully.3

How Does Ketamine Therapy Work?

Ketamine therapy involves IV infusion into a major muscle. It takes nearly an hour to complete. A medical professional should monitor the whole process to ensure correct application.1

The effects from such infusion last only about two weeks. So, patients would likely need another IV every few weeks for relief of their depression symptoms.

It should also be noted that ketamine treatments are rarely covered by insurance. The cost per infusion can run from $400 to $800. On a biweekly treatment schedule, that would come to about $15,000 per year.3

A Big Upside to Using Ketamine for Depression

Psychiatry has never seen a drug intervention so powerful and fast-acting as ketamine. With most antidepressants taking weeks to work and producing only modest gains, ketamine seems to offer dramatic results to many depression patients in mere hours.2

One of the most immediate effects from use of ketamine is a significant reduction in suicidal thoughts.

The Possible Dangers in Taking Ketamine

How ketamine works is just one of the drug’s many unknowns. It has been shown that people can become dependent on this drug, so addiction is definitely a concern. Then there’s the higher incidence of bladder toxicity and cognitive problems in those who take it recreationally.3

It might even be that some users of ketamine could suffer from laryngospasm as well. This disease makes it impossible to breathe through the vocal cords. While this illness has been rare, there is a chance that a lethal complication could occur with use of ketamine.

That said, long-term use studies are in their infancy. The consequences and potential side effects of taking doses over and over again are a mystery at this juncture. So, while ketamine has been shown to be safe as a temporary anesthetic, it’s hard to know how patients could react when exposed to anesthesia for months or even years at a time.2

More Research Is Needed on Ketamine as a Depression Medication

With so much still unknown, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) has reported that ketamine is “not ready to be widely used as a medication for treatment-resistant depression.”3

However, many experts believe this drug shows enough potential to warrant considerable study. And with no other promising medications on the horizon for mental health disorders, the call for research grows.

A new version of ketamine called esketamine has also been developed and patented. The FDA has labeled this nasal spray product a “breakthrough therapy.” As such, the green light has been given to fast-track it through the drug development process. If the trials are successful, it could be in the FDA’s hands for approval as early as 2018.3

Skywood Recovery offers excellent facilities and experienced staff to help you or a loved one struggling with ketamine or other addictive drugs. Give us a call at 269.280.4673 to speak with someone about getting help.


1Patients Are Experimenting With Ketamine to Treat Depression.” Wired, June 21, 2017.

2The Ketamine Breakthrough for Suicidal Children.” Scientific American, July 18, 2017.

3New Hope for Depression.” Time, July 27, 2017.

By Thomas Tjornehoj