You may have heard of ketamine — or its street name, “special K” — before. You might associate it with drug abuse or addiction.
Ketamine has medical usages and, when taken in responsible ways, can help relieve pain as well as depression and anxiety.
Doctors use ketamine as a sedative and dissociative anesthetic. They also use the medication for off-label purposes, like treating depression and anxiety, especially in patients who need help fast.
It’s also used for those who have treatment-resistant depression or anxiety, meaning depression or anxiety that has not responded well to traditional treatments, like therapy or antidepressants.
Responsible Vs Irresponsible Uses Of Ketamine
Ketamine, when used in irresponsible ways, can lead to what’s called a “k-hole”, where someone experiences disassociation.
Someone may, for instance, have an obscured sense of time passing or feel that they are watching themselves from above.
Ketamine can also cause elevated blood pressure, increased heart rate, dizziness, confusion, poor short-term memory, and nausea.
When used responsibly, by contrast, ketamine can have major physical and mental health benefits.
People take ketamine for pain and anxiety, for instance, and for some, it works better than other medications.
How Doctors Use Ketamine
There are two kinds of ketamine:
- Racemic ketamine;
- And esketamine.
Doctors typically give patients racemic ketamine via infusion into the bloodstream and esketamine via nasal spray. Treating patients with racemic ketamine infusions is more common.
For depression and anxiety, doctors will typically give ketamine infusions to patients under supervision a few times to determine whether it’s effective.
Afterward, they will work with their patients to determine whether to continue ketamine therapy or try other treatment methods instead.
What The Studies Show
Studies have shown that ketamine acts like a rapid and robust antidepressant for patients with treatment-resistant depression.
Giving ketamine infusions to patients is a way to reduce symptoms of depression, including severe symptoms such as suicidality, in a short amount of time.
That is to say, ketamine works as an antidepressant but unlike antidepressants, which can take weeks, even months, to take effect, its effects can be immediate.
Doctors also use ketamine to treat anxiety. A clinical trial in 2007 concluded the medication might help treat patients who struggle with Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD).
Ketamine may also help alleviate symptoms of:
- Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD);
- Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD);
- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
It’s unclear why ketamine can improve mental health and alter thought patterns, cognition, and mood in such a short amount of time.
Studies suggest that the medication binds to NMDA receptors in the brain, increasing the amount of glutamate, a neurotransmitter, and activating another receptor, AMPA, which releases other molecules that help neurons communicate along different pathways.
The Bottom Line
As of yet, ketamine therapy is not a very popular treatment method for mental illness, and not enough research has been done on the medication to draw any firm conclusions about its relationship to mental health.
But this therapy is becoming an increasingly popular method to treat mental illness and it may become as common as other treatment methods in the near future.