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What is Ketamine?

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Updated October 30, 2012

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Definition:

Ketamine the Drug

Ketamine is a dissociative drug which has a variety of uses. Originally, ketamine was used as an anesthetic—first for animals, and then for people. More recently, ketamine has been used as a date-rape drug, given its effects of immobilizing and impairing the awareness and memory of the victim. In lower doses, ketamine is used as a recreational drug, particularly in nightclubs, but also by solitary users.

Ketamine is a nonanalgesic dissociative anesthetic which was first manufactured in 1965 at the University of Michigan, and marketed under the name Ketalar. Recreational use of ketamine was first described in 1978 by Lilly. Veterinarians and pediatric surgeons still legally manufacture it for therapeutic use, and most of the illegal ketamine in circulation comes from these sources, although increased restrictions are leading to an increase in ketamine smuggling.

Ketamine is chemically similar to some other dissociative drugs, including PCP and MXE.

Effects of Ketamine

The effects of ketamine vary greatly, depending on the set and setting, and individual responses to the drug. While some find the effects of ketamine pleasant, others find the effects extremely unpleasant—especially if they're given the drug without their knowledge, for example, by consuming a drink spiked with it.

Ketamine causes tingling sensations, feelings of fragmentation, detachment, and psychic/physical/spiritual scatter. Although it's not an analgesic, ketamine causes disconnection from awareness of stimuli in the general environment, including pain; it also has a sedating effect. To an outsider, someone on ketamine may have an “autistic stare,” autistic behavior, and a zombie-like appearance. It can also have hallucinogenic effects, including sensory distortions ranging from illusions to hallucinations, and paranoid delusions. The extent of the effects typically depend on the amount taken, although some people seem to be much more sensitive to ketamine than others.

Ketamine disrupts your ability to pay attention, and affects your ability to modify your behavior, to learn new tasks, and to remember. This results in poor thinking, social withdrawal, and the inability to maintain a cognitive set. Although these effects are unpleasant for many, they can be appealing to those who seek out disconnection from the world around them, in the same way that some people seek out the oblivion of alcohol intoxication. Tolerance develops quickly, so ketamine dependence can develop, leading to addiction. Flashbacks may be more frequent after taking ketamine than they are with other hallucinogens.

Risks of Ketamine

Taking too much ketamine can lead to an unpleasant type of bad trip, called a k-hole.

Whether taken intentionally or not, ketamine increases the risk that the user will be raped, assaulted, robbed, or otherwise exploited because of a lack of awareness of what is going on around him/her, and even what is happening to his/her own body. Most of the problems that people experience as a result of taking ketamine are a result of impaired thinking and self control, such as accidents and injuries.

As with many other drugs, use of ketamine can trigger or induce the symptoms of psychosis, such as delusions and hallucinations, even after you come down. Ketamine also carries a serious risk of seizures and overdose, both of which can be life-threatening.

Sources

Khandrani, J., Rajput, A., Dahake, S., & Verma, N. "Ketamine induced seizures."Internet Journal of Anesthesiology 1092406X, 19. 2009.

McDowell, D. “Marijuana, hallucinogens, and club drugs.” In Clinical Textbook of Addictive Disorders. Third Edition. Edited by Richard Frances, Sheldon Miller, and Avram Maxk. New York: Guilford. 2005.

Morgan, C., Monaghan, L., & Curran, H. "Beyond the K-hole: a 3-year longitudinal investigation of the cognitive and subjective effects of ketamine in recreational users who have substantially reduced their use of the drug." Addiction 99:1450-1461. 2004.

Morgan, C., Muetzelfeldt, L., Curran, H. "Consequences of chronic ketamine self-administration upon neurocognitive function and psychological wellbeing: a 1-year longitudinal study." Addiction 105:121-33. 2010.

Morgan, C., Muetzelfeldt, L., & Curran, H. "Ketamine use, cognition and psychological wellbeing: a comparison of frequent, infrequent and ex-users with polydrug and non-using controls." Addiction 104:77–87. 2004.

Also Known As: Special k, Super k, Vitamin k, K
Common Misspellings: ketamin, ketimine, ketimin, ketameen, ketamene, ketamyn
Examples:
Ella fell into a k hole after taking too much ketamine.

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