Special K. Super C. Cat Valium. Super Acid. Jet. Green. Horse Tranquilizer.
To many people, ketamine is referenced in cryptic nicknames and negative connotations. Ketamine is hailed as a party staple – a quick ticket to hallucinations and bad decisions.
However, ketamine is now making headlines for reasons opposite to an illicit party escape.
Suspicions around the drug are steadily evolving. Recent findings discover ketamine’s impressive, yet controversial, effect on treatment-resistant depression.
An article by Healthline follows a woman named Becca who suffers from depression. After just a few months of ketamine infusions, Becca went from at risk of suicide, to a “warm and vivacious woman,” according to Heathline. The infusions work to “reboot” or clear the brain of dark thoughts. Ketamine may just have the power to save lives from the path of suicide.
What Exactly Is Ketamine?
Ketamine is a legal medication that is used to induce loss of consciousness.
Specifically, ketamine is a dissociative anesthetic. The Foundation for a Drug-Free World defines a dissociative anesthetic as a drug that distorts perception of sight and produces feelings of detachment from the environment and self.
Party-goers typically abuse ketamine for the drug’s hallucinogenic effects. Ketamine creates a detached, dream-like state where users may have difficulty moving. While some might use the drug in order to “trip,” others have used it with more evil intentions. Because the drug has no color, is tasteless, and has no smell, it can easily be slipped into someone’s drink, unknowingly. According to womenshealth.gov, ketamine can cause its user to feel weak, confused, and possibly pass out. Due to ketamine’s dissociative effects, the drug has been coined as a “date-rape” drug, for it can render one unable to consent to a sexual encounter.
Ketamine can be injected, consumed in drinks, snorted, or added to cigarettes. At high doses, users experience an effect referred to as “K-Hole”, which is an out-of-body or near- death encounter.
According to the Center of Substance Abuse Research, the long-term effects of ketamine abuse include amnesia, flashbacks, delirium, high increase in heart rate, lack of coordination, loss of touch with reality, aggressiveness, muscle rigidity, and death. Many times, ketamine users can develop an addiction and tolerance to the drug.
Although some users engage with ketamine in dangerous methods, the drug has clear potential when used in professional, medical settings.
Ketamine is most widely used in medicine as an anesthetic. The drug can produce relaxation and relieve pain in both humans and animals.
In human medical practice, ketamine is used in procedures such as cardiac catheterization, skin grafts, orthopedic procedures, eye, ear, nose, and throat diagnostic procedures, and minor surgical interventions. Additionally, ketamine has been used in hospital settings to control seizures in patients with epilepsy, according to Medical News Today.
In 2014, researchers found that ketamine infusion significantly reduced symptoms of chronic post traumatic stress disorder. Recent studies have also discovered ketamine infusion was associated with significant and rapid reduction in mood disorders, like depression and suicide prevention.
Ketamine’s Off-Label Controversial Cure
According to WebMD, every year, 13 million to 14 million Americans have major depression. Of the people who seek treatment, 30% to 40% will not get better or fully recover with standard antidepressants. Common antidepressants include Prozac, Zoloft, and Effexor.
Ethically, ketamine usage to treat depression is considered off-label, a medication being used in a manner not specified in the FDA- approved packaging and inserts. “Off-label” prescribing is legal and common. According to WebMD, more than one in five outpatient prescriptions written in the U.S. are for off-label treatments. Off-label treatments, though, are often not covered by some insurance plans.
Despite the ethical questions, ketamine infusion for depression has been found to act quickly, in as little as a few hours or less, according to psychiatrist Kyle Lapidus, MD, PhD. The drug has also been used in emergency rooms to curb suicidal thoughts, making ketamine a potential lifesaver in extreme situations.
Controversially, ketamine usage has not been studied thoroughly for safety and long-term effectiveness.
Currently, the FDA has not yet approved ketamine as a treatment for depression.
Recently, studies have been conducted and now provide evidence of ketamine’s ability to produce rapid antidepressant effects in patients with mood and anxiety disorders. The treatments are focused for patients previously resistant to treatment
In April 2017, a study by JAMA Psychiatry concluded, “While ketamine may be beneficial to some patients with mood disorders, it is important to consider the limitations of the available data and the potential risk associated with the drug when considering treatment options.”
In other words, doctors’ usage of off-label ketamine treatment may be helpful, however, potential issues with the treatment are still unknown.
Another study conducted in 2016 by BMC Medical Ethics focuses on the safety of off-label ketamine as a rapid antidepressant. The outcome of the study states, “We urge clinicians to minimize the risk of harming patients by considering the empirical evidence on ketamine properties.”
One of the main controversial issues of off-label ketamine usage is substance abuse. According to BMC Medical Ethics, “Depressive disorders can be chronic conditions and the current evidence does not rule out the risk of substance abuse after repeat prescription of ketamine.”
The study continues to encourage medical professionals to attempt all standard antidepressant therapies before considering off-label uses of ketamine.
Proceeding With Caution
Despite questioning the ethics of off-label ketamine treatments for depression, ketamine clinics are popping up around the country.
For example, New York Ketamine Infusion, LLC offers services for depression and chronic pain. Their depression treatment is considered a “next-level treatment” to “help people who no longer gain any benefit from existing antidepressant medications,” according to their website.
The depression treatment is proposed for patients suffering from major depressive disorders, postpartum depression, bipolar depression, PTSD, and severe anxiety states.
According to their website, 2 out of 3 patients show a dramatic improvement in their mood, and 3 out of 4 will cease to have suicidal ideation.
NBC News recently reported on ketamine’s beneficial effects for 52-year old Liz Leeman, yet an article by The Washington Post states that ketamine infusion treatments from clinics can cost anywhere between $500 and $1,500. Many times, multiple treatments are necessary.
The Post article tells the story of Dennis, now 52, who suffered from lifelong, profound depression. He states, “My life will always be divided into the time before that first (ketamine) infusion and the time after. That sense of suffering and pain draining away. I was bewildered by the absence of pain.”
Ketamine has unleashed life-changing effects on patients like Becca, Liz, and Dennis, steering their lives away from a dark place.
However, evidence supporting ketamine usage for depression is still minimal and lacks enough research and support for safe practice.
Although seemingly helpful in the treatment for depression, the use of ketamine could potentially be a breach of ethical and moral standards.