What is Ketamine used for?

For decades, medical and mental health professionals have searched for drugs, or ways to repurpose existing medication, to relieve symptoms of mental illness, chronic pain, and other ailments – often with little success. There’s no magic bullet for all our ills, but there may be hope in the form of ketamine


Ketamine was created nearly 60 years ago and gained widespread fame when it was used as a pre-surgical anesthetic to treat injured American combat soldiers in Vietnam. The drug also has found a place in veterinarian medicine. Almost since it was synthesized, the drug’s mind-altering and psychedelic properties have been legendary. Today, the drug has begun earning attention as a potential treatment for patients suffering from mental health disorders and long-term symptoms of chronic pain.


Ketamine’s history began in 1960. It’s the offspring of GHB, first synthesized in 1962. During the 1960s, it proliferated as a battlefield anesthetic for U.S. combat soldiers, before it was co-opted as a mind-altering drug to power the counterculture movement. In the 1970s, ketamine gained the attention of law enforcement for its popularity in the illicit drug market – notoriety which continued into the 1980s. The 1990s saw the medicine classified as a Schedule III controlled substance. Over the last 20 years, studies have indicated the positive outcomes of the drug for treating depression, other mental health disorders, and chronic pain symptoms.


Beyond its original design as a pre-surgical anesthetic, ketamine is also used, controversially, as a powerful sedative, and to help curb psychological distress associated with many kinds of mental health disorders and pain due to chronic injuries or other conditions.

Chronic pain

One report in Anesthesia & Analgesia noted ketamine’s effectiveness in treating chronic pain and said: “In some patients, ketamine has proved effective and … a trial of ketamine is probably warranted for the patient with severe chronic pain that is incapacitating and refractory to other first- and second-line pharmacological therapies.”


In Spring 2019, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved a ketamine-derived drug called esketamine, made by Johnson & Johnson and delivered as a nasal spray, to treat depression. This drug is noteworthy because it targets a chemical called glutamate which some believe restores brain connections and relieves depression.

Bipolar Disorder

In 2010, researchers at the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, Maryland, discovered that ketamine, dispensed intravenously, provided fast relief in patients reeling from symptoms of bipolar disorder and depression. This was due to its effect on the brain’s glutamatergic system, a key player in memory and information processing.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

The FDA approved the first clinical trial of ketamine as OCD treatment in 2012. Carolyn Rodriguez, MD, Ph.D., a researcher at Columbia, says the drug could lead to “a whole new line of medicines for fast-acting treatment of mental health disorders” and encouraged more research into its potential therapeutic value.


Ketamine and its derivative, eketamine, are dispensed in a controlled environment as arranged by a medical doctor. The medicine has shown potential for controlling symptoms of anxiety and other mental health disorders. The drug affects the brain’s neurotransmitters in a manner where symptoms of depression and anxiety are gradually reduced.

Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Ketamine infusion therapy is used to treat PTSD, with small doses helping to repair damaged brain connections. Dr. Steven Levine noted a 75 percent success rate for patients in a Columbia University study, and said ketamine isn’t a “magic bullet” but instead builds confidence that PTSD symptoms can be self-controlled.

How Ketamine Affects the Brain

Ketamine’s effect on our brain – how it networks with the Hippocampus and the Medial prefrontal cortex regarding bipolar disorder, for instance – is debatable. Researchers know that ketamine, its derivative esketamine, and ketamine-related medicine, are known to minimize some of the symptoms characteristic of mental disorders like depression, anxiety, and the previously mentioned chronic pain, but significant numbers of mental health professionals who question its efficacy also encourage more hard testing because of its potential benefits

Mental health statistics

  • About 40 percent of U.S. adults reported problems with mental health or substance abuse issues.
  • About 31 percent reported symptoms of anxiety or depression.
  • About 26 percent reported symptoms that were trauma or stress-related.


Mental illness, even when exacerbated by COVID-19 and global chaos, shouldn’t be considered the “end game” to your life and isn’t something to be ashamed of. Mental health disorders affect eight million U.S. adults, irrespective of gender or age. If you or a loved one show signs of mental illness, get help. Talk to a doctor or mental health professional, who may recommend psychotherapy or ketamine infusion therapy for your mood or pain disorder, or esketamine nasal spray.

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