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What is Ketamine Therapy?

A depressed male sitting on a couch of a treatment facility while being administered medication by a healthcare professional

For some people with depression, traditional treatments are not enough. Treatment-resistant depression means that standard antidepressants or therapies don’t ease depression symptoms. When this happens, it’s time to look for a new way to get relief. 

Ketamine therapy is a cutting-edge, off-label therapy for treating depression and mood-related mental health disorders that fail to respond to other therapies. Ketamine infusion is also a more rapid treatment option, proving highly beneficial to treating severe depression and preventing suicide.

If you or a loved one have treatment-resistant depression and are considering ketamine therapy, this post will address everything you need to know.

What is Ketamine?

The use of ketamine began in the 1960s as an anesthesia drug for animals. Not long after, the federal Food and Drug Administration approved it as ​​an anesthetic for humans.

Ketamine belongs to a class of drugs known as dissociative anesthetics. The hallucinogenic drug Phencyclidine (PCP) also belongs to this group. These drugs can distort your sensory perceptions and cause you to feel detached from your body and surroundings.

Through the last decade, doctors began using low doses of ketamine for treatment-resistant depression and other mood disorders.

Is Ketamine Safe?

Despite its misuse as a recreational party drug, ketamine is safe ​​when administered by a qualified medical practitioner in a controlled environment. 

As early as the 1970s, doctors used ketamine to treat injured soldiers in the Vietnam War. Unlike other anesthetics, ketamine does not reduce blood pressure or lower a person’s breathing rate. Patients, therefore, do not need to be on a ventilator when receiving it. This flexibility makes ketamine a suitable option for warzones or disaster zones. Ketamine is also often used as the anesthetic of choice in pediatric emergency rooms.

Although using ketamine to treat depression is not standard usage, the dose is much lower than the amount used as an anesthetic. The potential risks and side effects are therefore minimal.

How Does Ketamine Therapy Work?

Medical professionals administer ketamine therapy through IV infusions into your arm. The standard course of treatment typically involves six infusions in two to three weeks. After the first couple of treatments, the doctor monitors your responsiveness to the drug to establish whether it’s worth continuing with the treatment.

Unlike when doctors use ketamine as an anesthetic, ketamine therapy has less to do with the dissociative effect during the initial treatment and more to do with what happens in your brain after receiving the drug.

Ketamine is an N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) receptor antagonist. NMDA receptors help nerve cells (neurons) in the brain attract a neurotransmitter called glutamate. Glutamate is responsible for sending signals across synapses (the gap between two neurons). But, these receptors weaken as the result of the long-term stress hormones caused by depression. Ketamine temporarily blocks these NMDA receptors, which causes a surge in glutamate in the synapses. This surge helps the synapses to regrow and neurons to reconnect.

In other words, ketamine helps repair damage to the brain that can occur due to depression and mood disorders. By regrowing synapses, you can change your ways of thinking, feeling, and acting. 

Who Can Receive Ketamine Therapy?

Mental health professionals use ketamine therapy for those suffering from depression and other mood disorders like bipolar disorder or Post-traumatic Stress Disorder.

Ketamine therapy has been a last-resort treatment after standard treatments such as antidepressants are deemed ineffective. But, some medical practitioners now recognize the drug’s effectiveness and offer it as a first-line therapy.

Ketamine infusion is not for:

  • People with a History of Substance Abuse. Scientists don’t think ketamine is addictive in small doses, but research is ongoing in this area. Currently, medical professionals don’t recommend the therapy for those with a history of substance abuse.
  • People with Unstable Cardiac Status. Ketamine therapy can increase heart rate and blood pressure. Therefore, it isn’t recommended for those with cardiovascular diseases.
  • People Taking Benzodiazepines. Benzodiazepines, which treat anxiety, seizures, and insomnia, can reduce the effectiveness of ketamine. Therefore, patients need to discontinue those drugs before ketamine therapy begins.

Potential Side Effects of Ketamine Therapy

Like all drugs, ketamine has some potential side effects. However, they are generally mild, and the drug’s benefits for lessening the symptoms of depression outweigh them.

Potential side effects of ketamine therapy are:

  • Dissociation. Feeling floaty and disconnected from your body is entirely possible during the infusion itself. But, this feeling only lasts for around 45 minutes and does not continue after the treatment. 
  • High Blood Pressure. Ketamine therapy can temporarily raise your heart rate and blood pressure. This increase is usually mild and easily tolerated by the body.
  • Nausea and Vomiting. You may feel slightly nauseous after the infusion. This feeling usually doesn’t last for more than a couple of hours. 

A healthcare professional who provides medication through an iv procedure to a patient

Benefits of Ketamine Therapy 

Ketamine therapy is still relatively new, and studies into its long-term effectiveness are ongoing. But, clinical studies have yielded positive results. A 2019 study of the efficacy of ketamine on 25 patients with severe depression showed improvement in depressive symptoms just one hour after the ketamine infusion. The same patients experienced an overall decrease in illness severity after two weeks.

Major benefits of ketamine therapy include:

  • Effective Against Treatment-Resistant Depression. Studies have shown ketamine therapy to be effective in cases where other forms of treatment fail.
  • Can Increase Effectiveness of Other Treatments. Most doctors recommend continuing with other treatments, such as standard antidepressants and talk therapy. The changes in the brain due to the ketamine may make you more receptive to other therapies, even if they didn’t work before.
  • Faster Working Than Standard Antidepressants. Conventional antidepressants can take between three and 12 weeks to begin easing symptoms. On average, ketamine therapy takes between 24-72 hours to start being effective. This rapid therapy can be beneficial for treating severe depression and preventing suicide.

How Integrative Life Center Can Help

Suffering from treatment-resistant depression can feel like you’re fighting a losing battle. But ground-breaking new treatments such as ketamine infusion therapy are providing relief for many people.

If you or a loved one have treatment-resistant depression or another mood disorder, contact Integrative Life Center to find out if ketamine therapy is the right treatment for you.

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