Ketamine for Pain Management

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Medically reviewed: Paloma Lehfeldt, MD
a man with back pain considering ketamine for pain treatment

Ketamine Could Be a Key to Reducing Chronic Pain

First approved for human use in the 1970s, ketamine is one of the most widely used medications in the world. Designated as an “essential medicine” by the World Health Organization, ketamine is a highly effective anesthetic. Researchers and medical providers began exploring ketamine’s potential as a mental health treatment in the early 2000s. Since then, providers have delved into ketamine’s potential to treat conditions like depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), bipolar depression, and even pain management.

What is Chronic Pain?

Everyone has experienced some sort of physical pain in their life. Pain is, by and large, completely normal and your body’s way of telling you something is wrong or damaged. However, chronic pain can be a debilitating condition where people suffer frequent, severe, and long-lasting pain.(1)

There are instances where the nerves responsible for generating pain signals are damaged or overactive. In these cases, symptoms can emerge that range from debilitating headaches, such as migraines or cluster headaches, to severe joint pain, burning sensations, and lower back pain, just to name a few. The CDC estimates that 50 million Americans are living with some form of chronic pain, and up to four million are struggling with high-impact pain that can be debilitating and life-disrupting.(2)

Many treatment options are available for you if you are one of the millions of people suffering from chronic pain. However, traditional treatments may not be effective for the four million people with high-impact chronic pain. Fortunately, researchers have begun exploring a well-established drug for new pain management therapies. Ketamine, used as an anesthetic (a drug that results in temporary loss of awareness/sensation) and analgesic (pain reliever) for nearly five decades, may hold some promise as an alternative treatment for chronic pain. 

What Causes Chronic Pain?

Chronic pain can have a wide range of causes. Things like improperly healed wounds, broken bones, frequent stress or strain, a lost limb, or nerve damage can trigger chronic pain. While medical professionals don’t understand all of the underlying causes, options such as ketamine therapy are available to treat chronic pain syndromes.(3)

What are Some Chronic Pain Symptoms?Chronic pain typically involves persistent pain over long periods. Some examples include phantom limb syndrome, severe arthritis, and pain from improperly healed injuries.

Other chronic pain symptoms include:(3)

  • Joint Pain
  • Stiffness
  • Muscle Aches
  • Burning Sensations
  • Nerve Damage
  • Irritability
  • Inability to Focus
  • Sleeplessness
  • Loss of Appetite

Ketamine for Pain – Does it Help?

As an anesthetic, ketamine has a long history of use in the medical world. Studies have shown that ketamine may be particularly well-suited to reducing postoperative pain and opiate use after surgery. A review of 53 trials utilizing ketamine as a tool for postoperative pain management found that ketamine decreases pain after surgery for up to 48 hours and lowers the amount of painkiller consumption up to 24 hours after surgery.(4)

How Does Ketamine Treat Pain?

Ketamine is an N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) antagonist, meaning that it interacts with the neurotransmitter glutamate.(5) Glutamate is believed to play a role in mood regulation. It also appears that it and the NMDA receptor have a large role in amplifying pain. By altering the NMDA receptors’ glutamate interaction, ketamine may provide rapid relief from pain.(6)

Ketamine vs. Opiate Pain KillersAnalysis of several randomized controlled trials indicates that ketamine, used during and after surgery, can reduce the painkillers patients need. A recent study focusing on cancer-induced chronic pain had patients receive a single high-dose intraoperative (during surgery) ketamine infusion. These patients exhibited less pain and significantly lower use of opioids post-surgery.(7,8)

Compared to prescription opiates, ketamine has a lower risk of addiction and dependency. Ketamine is generally well tolerated and, unlike opiates, will not suppress a patient’s respiratory system.(9)

opiate pain killers

Does Ketamine Carry Risks?Ketamine and its derivatives, such as the nasal spray Spravato, are relatively safe when used in a proper medical setting. However, like most medications, they carry some risks. If you have conditions like schizophrenia or high blood pressure, you should consult a physician to determine if ketamine is safe for you.

Some other ketamine risks include:(10)

  • Nervousness
  • Tension
  • Rapid Heartbeat
  • Shallow or Fast Breathing
  • Insomnia
  • Feelings of Fear
  • Dread
  • Avoidance Behaviors
  • Overstimulation 

When used in a medical setting, ketamine is relatively safe, can be effective, and has a low risk of abuse. Ketamine’s safety profile has led to it being one of the most prevalent compounds used in pediatric, elder care, and surgical applications where patients have an increased risk of respiratory complications. 

Could Ketamine Help Manage Your Chronic Pain?Depending on your unique medical needs, ketamine could be an effective tool in the fight against chronic pain. Schedule a consultation with a medical provider if you think ketamine treatment for pain is right for you. Typically ketamine treatment requires a diagnosis from a medical professional and sometimes a referral. You should seek advice from a licensed medical practitioner before starting ketamine treatments for pain management. You can also use our directory to find ketamine treatment for chronic pain near you

Where to Find
Ketamine TreatmentLocate outpatient ketamine clinics and at-home ketamine service providers in the U.S. that offer care for pain, depression, anxiety, PTSD, OCD, and addiction.