Ketamine

What Is Ketamine?

Ketamine is a medication originally developed as a human and veterinary anesthetic. Unlike other anesthetics, it does not depress breathing or blood pressure, though unpleasant side effects, including hallucinations and confusion, may occur. Due to its low cost, it remains widely used in medical procedures around the world. 

Ketamine is used for more than sedation, however. The medication has gained a reputation as a cheap and addictive street drug, known as ”Special K,” that triggers hallucinations and feelings of dissociation. Though fatal overdoses are rare, tolerance builds quickly. Repeated exposure to high doses of ketamine has been shown to have severe psychological and physical consequences.

The drug has also gained popularity in recent years as a fast-acting antidepressant medication. Unlike other antidepressants, which can take weeks or months to work, patients who take ketamine often see improvements within just a few hours. Ketamine also appears to sharply decrease thoughts of suicide. But the effects are short-lived, and the long-term outcomes of regular ketamine treatment are unknown.

When used for depression or chronic pain, ketamine is often infused intravenously in specialized clinics. A round of ketamine infusions typically comprises several sessions spread over a few weeks and may cost several thousand dollars. Patients typically pay out-of-pocket; some patients may struggle to afford or access the drug.

Ketamine vs. Esketamine: What’s the Difference?

Ketamine itself is not FDA-approved to treat depression, but a derivative of ketamine, esketamine, is.

The drug is delivered by nasal spray and is designed to be administered alongside a traditional antidepressant. It was approved specifically for “treatment-resistant depression,” or depression that has failed to respond to at least one other antidepressant medication.

Because the drug is FDA-approved, it can be covered by insurance. But the drug must be administered under a doctor’s supervision, leading some experts to worry that patients could have problems accessing it, as they do with intravenous ketamine.

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