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Is Ketamine An Opioid - The Science Behind Pain Relief

In the realm of pharmaceuticals, the intriguing question persists: "is ketamine an opioid?" This inquiry opens a gateway to a nuanced exploration of two distinct classes of medications that, on the surface, might share certain effects but harbor intricate differences.

Author:James Pierce
Reviewer:Karan Emery
Mar 07, 20241.3K Shares55.4K Views
In the realm of pharmaceuticals, the intriguing question persists: "Is ketamine an opioid?"This inquiry opens a gateway to a nuanced exploration of two distinct classes of medications that, on the surface, might share certain effects but harbor intricate differences. In this article, we will unravel the complexities surrounding ketamine and opioids, deciphering their mechanisms of action, medical applications, and the potential implications for healthcare.

What Is Ketamine?

Ketamine is a medication initially developed as an anesthetic in the 1960s. It induces a trance-like state, effectively preventing pain and discomfort during surgical and medical procedures. Unlike opioids, which work by binding to specific receptors in the brain, ketamine operates through a different mechanism.
Its unique properties extend beyond anesthesia, as it has gained attention for potential applications in treating depression. While ketamine shares pain-relieving qualities with opioids, it is not classified as an opioid.

What Is Opioid?

Opioid is a type of medication that is commonly prescribed for pain relief. Opioids work by binding to specific receptors in the brain and other parts of the body known as opioid receptors. By interacting with these receptors, opioids can diminish the perception of pain, providing a powerful analgesic (pain-relieving) effect.
Examples of opioids include:
  • morphine
  • oxycodone
  • hydrocodone
It's important to note that while opioids can be highly effective in managing pain, they also carry a risk of side effects, including the potential for dependence and addiction. As such, opioids are typically prescribed and used under careful medical supervision.

Similarities Of Ketamine And Opioids

Both of these medications are used to help people manage pain. Whether it's after surgery or due to a medical condition, both ketamine and opioids aim to make people feel better by reducing how much pain they experience.
Another similarity is that both ketamine and opioids influence the way our brains work. Opioids do this by connecting with specific receptors in the brain, like a key fitting into a lock, to turn down the volume on pain signals. Ketamine, though it uses a different set of instructions, also has an impact on the brain, creating a kind of trance-like state during medical procedures that helps keep pain away.
Ketamine and opioids are powerful tools in the hands of medical professionals. They play important roles in providing relief to people facing pain, whether it's in a hospital setting or during recovery at home.
While they have their unique ways of achieving this goal, the shared objective is to improve the well-being of individuals dealing with various forms of discomfort. Understanding these commonalities helps us appreciate the value each brings to the realm of pain management.
A female nurse pouring some pills into her hands.
A female nurse pouring some pills into her hands.

Differences Of Ketamine And Opioids

Ketamine and opioids working styles vary. Opioids, such as morphine and oxycodone, are like keys that fit into specific locks in the brain, known as opioid receptors. These "keys" turn down the intensity of pain signals, providing relief. On the flip side, ketamine doesn't use the same "locks."
Instead, it has its own target, the N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) receptor. So, while opioids focus on one type of lock, ketamine has its own unique set of instructions, like having different keys for different doors.
Another key difference is in their job descriptions. Opioids are mainly used for pain relief after surgeries or due to medical conditions. They are like the heavy lifters in the pain management toolbox.
On the other hand, ketamine, though also used for pain control, has this cool additional feature, it can induce a sort of trance-like state during medical procedures. It's like opioids are specialists in pain relief, and ketamine is the versatile multitasker, bringing both pain relief and a unique anesthetic effect to the table.
It is essential to highlight the potential risks.
Opioids, if not used carefully, can lead to dependence and addiction. They come with a set of challenges that need careful monitoring.
Ketamine, while not classified as an opioid, has its own set of concerns, especially when used outside of medical supervision. Both need to be handled responsibly, but understanding these differences helps medical professionals choose the right tool for the job and ensures patients get the care they need without unnecessary risks.

Side Effects Of Ketamine

Dissociation And Hallucinations

Ketamine has a unique effect on how we feel. It can make us experience something called dissociation, which is like feeling separated from what's happening around us. It's a bit like watching a movie instead of being part of it. Alongside this, ketamine might also bring on hallucinations, where things might look or feel different from what they really are.
Imagine seeing colors that aren't there or feeling like you're in a dream. These experiences, known as perceptual distortions, happen because ketamine can change how our brains process information, creating a temporary and sometimes surreal world inside our minds.

Increased Heart Rate And Blood Pressure

Ketamine can make our heart beat faster and raise our blood pressure for a little while. It's like our heart and blood are working a bit harder than usual, but it's only for a short time. This happens because ketamine has an impact on our body's systems, making everything speed up temporarily.
It's a bit like our body is responding to the presence of ketamine, adjusting itself for a brief period. While this increase in heart rate and blood pressure is usually temporary and not a cause for major concern in medical settings, it's something doctors keep an eye on to make sure everything stays within safe limits.

Nausea And Vomiting

For some people, using ketamine might make them feel queasy or even throw up. It's like when you've been on a bumpy ride, and your stomach feels a bit off. With ketamine, this sensation can happen to some folks.
It's the body's way of reacting to the medication, and while it doesn't happen to everyone, those who do experience it might feel a bit nauseous or have the urge to vomit. It's essential for medical professionals to know if someone feels this way during or after using ketamine, so they can adjust things accordingly and ensure the person is as comfortable as possible.

Elevated Intracranial Pressure (ICP)

Ketamine might cause a bit of a worry for some people with certain health conditions because it can possibly increase something called intracranial pressure (ICP). Now, intracranial pressure is like the pressure inside our heads, and when it goes up, it could be a bit concerning, especially for those with specific medical situations.
It's a bit like having a balloon inside your head that might feel a bit more inflated with ketamine. This is why doctors need to be careful and consider a person's health history before using ketamine, making sure it's safe and won't cause any issues related to increased pressure inside the head.
A doctor checking shoulder rotator of a patient.
A doctor checking shoulder rotator of a patient.

Side Effects Of Opioids

Drowsiness And Sedation

Opioids have this sleepy effect on people, they can make you feel really drowsy and kind of sedated. It's like when you're so comfortable in bed that you can't keep your eyes open. With opioids, this drowsiness doesn't just stay in bed; it can affect how alert and coordinated you feel overall.
It's a bit like having a cozy blanket over your brain, making everything slow down a bit. This is why if someone is using opioids, it's important for them to be aware of this drowsiness so they can avoid activities that need a lot of attention, like driving or operating heavy machinery.


Opioids can cause a bit of a tummy trouble, they tend to make things slow down in the digestive department, often leading to a common problem called constipation. It's like the normal flow of things in your stomach and intestines takes a bit of a break. This issue can stick around for a while, especially if someone is using opioids for a longer time.
It is not uncommon for people taking these medications to find themselves dealing with constipation, and it's something doctors usually keep an eye on to make sure it doesn't become too bothersome or uncomfortable for the person.

Respiratory Depression

Opioids come with a pretty serious concern, especially when the doses are on the higher side. They can affect your breathing, making it slow down and become shallower, this is what's known as respiratory depression. It's a bit like your body forgets to take deep breaths, and that can be risky.
This concern is a big deal because having slower and shallower breaths means your body might not be getting enough oxygen, which is essential for everything to work properly. So, when it comes to opioids, keeping an eye on how someone is breathing, especially if they're taking a higher dose, is crucial to make sure they stay safe and get the right amount of oxygen their body needs.

Is Ketamine An Opioid - FAQs

What Do NMDA Drugs Do?

NMDA (N-methyl-D-aspartate) receptor antagonists are a class of drugs that may treat memory loss and brain damage associated with Alzheimer's disease. NMDA receptor allows the binding of the excitatory neurotransmitter glutamate to its site.

What Are The 3 Types Of Analgesics?

Analgesics are medications that relieve pain. There are three main types: non-opioid analgesics, opioid analgesics, and compound analgesics that combine the two previous forms.

What Is The Strongest Pain Killer?

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid similar to morphine but up to 100 times more potent. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it is among the most abused pain relievers in the U.S. and the leading cause of overdose deaths. More than 80,000 Americans died from an opioid overdose in 2021.


Is ketamine an opioid? The short answers is no. Ketamine's unique mechanism of action through the NMDA receptor distinguishes it from traditional opioids. While it holds promise in various medical applications, it's vital to approach ketamine with caution due to its potential for misuse.
Understanding the distinctions between ketamine and opioids is crucial for informed decision-making in both medical and recreational contexts.
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James Pierce

James Pierce

Karan Emery

Karan Emery

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