Ketamine is a topic of discussion everywhere, right? It’s a celebrity medicine that’s become legendary in the annals of pop culture, gaining headlines in major news outlets (The Independent, The New Yorker, CNN, and many others) and medical journals. But how did a medicine with humble beginnings gain such notoriety?
What Is Ketamine?
Ketamine is a medicine initially developed as an anesthetic by researchers at Wayne State University working on behalf of Parke-Davis in the early 1960s.
Key dates in the history of ketamine
- 1950s – research begins into new kinds of anesthesia.
- 1962 – first synthesized.
- 1963 – patented for human anesthesia in Belgium.
- 1966 – patented as a human anesthetic in the United States.
It was around this time that ketamine was shipped off for field trials in Vietnam. The medicine gained widespread popularity as a fast-acting anesthetic in battlefield settings and was the most widely used anesthetic until the conflict ended.
- 1970 – approved for use in anesthesia by the United States (U.S.) Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
- 1970s – the use of the anesthetic in veterinarian medicine begins.
- 1985 – added to the World Health Organization Essential Medicines List, “meaning that it should be available at all times in adequate amounts for healthcare needs.”
- 2000s – global research started into using ketamine to treat depression.
- 2019 – a form of ketamine was approved to treat depression by the U.S. FDA.
It’s a dissociative medicine, which means it acts on different chemicals in the brain and may lessen symptoms of depression, mood disorders, and other physical health conditions.
What Is It Used For?
While ketamine’s primary use is for anesthesia, it’s also dispensed to help manage symptoms of some mental health and physical pain conditions, including:
- Depression. According to the U.S. FDA, ketamine is useful with treatment-resistant depression, a type of depression that doesn’t respond to regular therapy such as antidepressants and psychotherapy. It may help reduce symptoms like anxiety, mood swings, and sadness.
- Bipolar disorder features extreme mood swings that go from high (mania) to low (depression).
- Post-traumatic stress disorder may affect someone who’s lived through a traumatic event.
- Seasonal affective disorder.
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder.
- Chronic pain conditions.
- And others.
Why Is Ketamine Receiving So Much Attention?
One of the reasons ketamine has received so much attention in the last several years is that more people realize its potential in treating symptoms of mental illness and physical pain conditions.
Numerous private and public clinical trials have been undertaken – are many are still ongoing – in the United States and elsewhere to understand its function and possible risks and benefits. After pouring through the results of 83 studies, researchers at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom confirmed that ketamine therapy produces quick, short-term respite from depression. In some cases, it could also alleviate suicidal ideation and other mental health warning signs, as reported by the British Journal of Psychiatry Open. The study was a collaborative effort by the University of British Columbia and the Society for the Study of Addiction.
Key summary findings
- Intravenous ketamine therapy shows significant promise for lowering symptoms of depression.
- Severe unipolar depression was relieved quickly, within one to 24 hours, and the effect of ketamine lasted for up to 2 weeks.
- Symptoms of bipolar depression also subsided quickly, within about four hours, with the effects lasting three to seven days.
- Ketamine was also useful in reducing affective disorders and thoughts of suicide.
- The research discovered that ketamine offers therapeutic benefits for anxiety, posttraumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and substance use disorders.
Ketamine also receives attention because of media “noise.” A recent Google search for ketamine “news” related topics returned a list of a whopping 236,000 sources.
Potential Risks Of Ketamine
Like other medicine, ketamine has its share of risks that anyone thinking of using it should be aware of. If you have questions about possible risks, ask your healthcare provider for more information.
Psychiatric side effects may include:
- A dream-like feeling
- Experiencing colorful dreams
- Decreased focus
- You have problems thinking
- You may experience what some call “out of body” experiences
Physical side effects may include:
- You may experience impaired motor function (or problems with hand-to-eye coordination, for instance)
- Slowed breathing
- High blood pressure
- Low heart rate
If you have a mental illness or chronic pain condition which don’t respond well to standard treatment, it may be time to ask your healthcare provider about the benefits of ketamine therapy. Depending on your medical history and overall wellness, it may help you regain control of your life.