What Is Ketamine and How Does It Affect Your Body?

What is Ketamine?

Ketamine is a well-known medication that was originally used as an anesthetic during minor surgical procedures. Over time, ketamine has grown in popularity as a recreational drug due to its sedative and muscle-relaxing properties. Recently, mental health professionals have explored how ketamine is used to address suicidality and symptoms of depression. Despite the effectiveness of ketamine for medical uses as an antidepressant, this medication has yet to be approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for these purposes.

The National Institute of Mental Health has researched how ketamine is used to determine its effectiveness and mechanism within the body. Several studies have found that individuals have experienced a decrease in depressive symptoms just six hours after the intravenous use of ketamine. These effects have been described as equally or more effective than six weeks of traditional antidepressant medications.

What is Ketamine used for?

The majority of research on ketamine’s medical uses is regarding its effect on depression treatment when used as an infusion that is injected intravenously. However, a milder form of ketamine can also be used as a nasal spray. While the intravenous and nasal forms of ketamine are similar, they have varying levels of effectiveness that have yet to be fully explored.

While ketamine may be effective in treating depression for some individuals, especially those who have treatment-resistant depression, ketamine does have addictive properties. This makes it important for an individual to work with a mental health professional to determine if ketamine is an appropriate method of treatment for them.

One to three infusions of ketamine are typically enough to positively impact individuals who are living with depression. However, the effects vary from person to person. Some individuals may experience a decrease in depressive symptoms after one to three infusions, while other individuals experience minimal to no effects after the same number of infusions. Individuals who see positive results from early infusions of ketamine for depression are the most likely to experience long-term success with this type of treatment.

How does ketamine affect the body?

When used medically, ketamine stimulates breathing and cardiac function, making it an ideal anesthetic choice for minor, short, or emergency surgical procedures. Because medically ketamine is intended to serve as a mild anesthetic that does not provide complete sedation, this medication does not offer sufficient support for breathing if an individual takes too large a dose or if the medication is taken too quickly. This means that how ketamine is used is of high importance, as it can be habit-forming, injury-causing, or even fatal if not taken appropriately.

Ketamine works to decrease the effects of central sensitization, which has an impact on the occurrence of chronic pain. Chronic pain evolves and persists in the presence of chemical signals that consistently alert the brain of pain in the body. Mental health professionals believe that ketamine’s prolonged effectiveness is due in part to the secondary effects it causes in the body.

Since there is a delicate relationship between how ketamine is used and the presence of chronic pain, ketamine may create habit-forming behaviors in individuals who use this substance recreationally. Individuals who recreationally use ketamine do so for its dissociative effects and its ability to create a numbing feeling in both the body and the mind. However, the negative effects of ketamine are impactful, so it is important that individuals adhere to the medical uses of ketamine for safety purposes.

Recreational ketamine use is especially dangerous because ketamine has a different effect on each individual. These variations make it particularly difficult to determine definitive dosage levels that are dangerous. Someone who is using ketamine recreationally may experience slurred speech, rapid eye movement, skin redness, difficulty sleeping, restlessness, and incoordination. Recreational ketamine use can also cause mood changes, including depression and irritability.

Individuals who recreationally use large amounts of ketamine may also experience cognitive changes, hallucinations, difficulty breathing, numbness or decreased sensitivity, difficulty with normal movements, high heart rate, elevated blood pressure, and impaired ability to see or hear.

Individuals who suddenly stop the recreational use of ketamine may experience withdrawal due to the habit-forming properties of this drug. Individuals can potentially experience the negative impact of recreational ketamine use for long periods of time. These adverse outcomes may last longer than one year, and individuals may permanently experience certain effects such as cognitive changes and organ damage.


National Institute of Mental Health. (2014). Ketamine. Retrieved from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/about/directors/thomas-insel/blog/2014/ketamine.shtml

Rosenbaum, S.B. and Palacios, J.L. (2019). Ketamine. StatPearls. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing.

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