Recently, news reports of a new FDA approved drug to treat Major Depression symptoms have circulated the internet. This drug comes in a nasal spray and is a fast-acting solution for those who have tried and failed to treat their major depressive symptoms using antidepressants and other traditional methods. This may be a saving grace for those who seemingly had no hope, but as with every drug there is a catch- this medication uses the active ingredient Ketamine.

What is Ketamine?

Ketamine is in the drug class dissociative anesthetics. It has a sedating quality and is typically used in surgical and veterinary medicine. Ketamine can be very sedating and also has qualities which can reduce pain, making it an excellent drug for use in surgical procedures because it can be used with anesthesia and reduces the need for opiate painkillers after the procedure.

Ketamine has even been used to reduce seizures acutely, and in a study performed in 2014 the drug reduced the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. This drug was first synthesized in the 1960’s and has been used from everything as a local anesthetic in eye surgeries, to a sedative for veterinary medicine. It’s wide range of affects make it an effective in many medical circumstances.

How Does Ketamine Treat Depression?

Ketamine has been an experimental treatment for depression for some time now, but many wonder how this drug actually works to treat depression. According to depressionalliance.org, Ketamine works for depression by balancing neurotransmitters and receptors- specifically the NMDA/glutamate and GABA receptors). These receptors are responsible for such tasks as learning and function, memory, and regulating the chemical messages sent between brain cells.

Ketamine essentially works by retraining neural pathways to correctly process information that can cause the type of depression that doesn’t respond to antidepressants. Studies show that many people respond to this type of therapy, so why is it so controversial?

The Potential Abuse of Ketamine

In spite of the promising results of Ketamine as a treatment for severe depression, many remain concerned about using this drug because of the high potential for abuse. Though Ketamine can improve neural function or even be sedating, using Ketamine for non-medically indicated purposes can have a hallucinogenic affect. In fact, other drugs belonging to the same drug class as Ketamine include PCP and Dextromethorphan (DXM) which are also commonly abused for their hallucinogenic properties.

The abuse of Ketamine gained traction in the 1990’s as part of the rise of what became known as the “rave” scene. The drug was frequently used as an additive to ecstasy or used in conjunction with ecstasy. In addition to hallucinations, the drug can cause:

  • Disorientation, or break from reality
  • Reduction of Pain
  • A combination of physical affects such as a semi-comatose state, or lack of motor skills known by users as a K-Hole
  • A feeling of vulnerability, or empathy
  • Euphoria
  • Aggression
  • Excessive sweating, insomnia, and aggression

Ketamine abuse can also lead to higher instances of depression and anxiety, a counter indication to treating depression. For this reason, it is incredibly important that when using this medication to treat depression, the user not vary their dosage at all.

But, just because Ketamine has the potential for abuse, doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be used. What it does mean is that there is an ethical responsibility for prescribers and loved ones to watch for signs of potential abuse.

What Are the Signs of Ketamine Abuse?

Should you become concerned that your loved on is abusing Ketamine, there are signs you can look for. Drugabuse.com list the signs of repeated Ketamine abuse as:

  • Mood swings, or personality changes
  • Increased feelings of depression and anxiety
  • Disruptions in critical thinking skills or the ability to learn and perform new tasks
  • Memory Impairment
  • Abdominal Pain
  • Increased instance of injury due to pain suppressing qualities in Ketamine
  • “Ketamine bladder syndrome” consisting of inability to hold urine and incontinence
  • Blood in urine

In addition to these signs, there are behaviors that are common with all forms of substance abuse. Some of these behaviors may include dishonesty or defensiveness about their behaviors, inability to hold a job or show up for commitments, stealing as a means of purchasing drugs, weight loss, or decrease in personal hygiene.

What Can You Do to Help?

Though it may seem overwhelming, Ketamine addiction is treatable. Ketamine abuse doesn’t typically require medical detox, but it is always a good idea to speak to a doctor before trying to abruptly quit using any medication, even if it’s not being used as prescribed. The most common recommendation for treating Ketamine addiction is entering a substance abuse rehabilitation program. These programs will address underlying behaviors and issues which may be responsible for the substance abuse. However, it isn’t always simple to convince a loved one to get help.

According to Care Recovery Intervention Services, some addicted individuals need a push to seek treatment. If you find yourself in that position, it may be a good idea to enlist that help of a trained interventionist. Additionally, medical professionals, religious leaders, and community members may also be willing to help get your loved on the help they need.

So, Should We Be Worried?

This information is scary, and it certainly raises the question of whether Ketamine treatment is even a good option for treating depression. It’s important to remember that just because a substance can be addictive, doesn’t mean the user will get addicted. Many medications that could be abused are not abused by the person to whom they are prescribed.

For perspective, alcohol is also an addictive substance, and is consumed throughout the world on a daily basis. Everyone who drinks alcohol is at risk of developing an addiction to it, but a comparatively small amount of people who drink alcohol become addicted to it. Ketamine is the same.

Its best to be cautiously optimistic about the implications of using Ketamine to treat depression. This is especially true considering that the group of people that Ketamine is prescribed to are already considered a highly at-risk group for suicide and self-harm. In these circumstances, it seems that the benefits- coupled with medical oversight and a good support group- outweigh the risks.

About the author

Sara T. Loving

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