Is Ketamine an Opioid?

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

A drug used to treat depression and pain is being touted as possible solution to the opioid crisis.

This week a South Carolina drug maker said it would partner with a medical device company to sell ketamine in take home medication bags that can be administered by an ambulatory pain pump. The idea is to give patients recovering from surgery a safer alternative to opioids.

“We are proud to partner with InfuTronix Solutions to deliver opioid-free pain medication to patients across the country,” Nephron Pharmaceuticals CEO Lou Kennedy said in a statement. “The overuse of opioids is a crisis in America. Non-narcotic pain management is a cost-saving way that companies like ours can help save lives.”

Non-narcotic? Opioid-free?

That’s not what a team of researchers at Stanford University concluded last year after studying how ketamine works in the brain. In a small clinical study, they gave a dozen patients diagnosed with depression a combination of ketamine and naltrexone – an opioid-receptor blocker. To their surprise, naltrexone stopped ketamine from working as an antidepressant.

In effect, the researchers discovered that ketamine works just like oxycodone, hydrocodone and other painkillers – by activating opioid receptors in the brain. 

“Everything that I was taught, and everything that I’ve always taught my students — all of the evidence supports the fact that ketamine is not an opioid,” said lead author Boris Heifets, MD, a clinical assistant professor of anesthesiology, perioperative and pain medicine. “I was really surprised at the results.”

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“And the results were so clear that we ended the study early to avoid exposing additional patients to the ineffective combination treatment,” said co-lead author Nolan Williams, MD, a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral science.

The Stanford research, published in The American Journal of Psychiatry, caught psychiatrists and pain management experts by surprise. Some urged caution about the long-term use of ketamine until more can be learned about potential side effects such as addiction. Some depressed patients taken off ketamine have shown signs of withdrawal and became suicidal.

“Given the rapid relapse and potential suicide risk, it is hard to know what to recommend to clinicians. Should they really continue to use the agent beyond an acute course? For how long? In whom?” Alan Schatzberg, MD, a Stanford professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, warned in a commentary. “The drug’s opioid properties need to be considered when considering how best to use it.”

‘A Black Eye to Ketamine’

Talk like that has given ketamine a bad rap, according to experts at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. They’ve published a commentary of their own, defending the use of ketamine as a necessary treatment for depression that doesn’t respond to typical antidepressants.

“A (Stanford) study done late last year delivered a black eye to ketamine, and as a result of the coverage, there was a wholesale acceptance by both potential patients and physicians that ketamine is an opioid,” says Adam Kaplin, MD, an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins.

“This is most worrisome if people continue to think this way, particularly in the wake of the opioid epidemic; clinicians won’t refer patients for a treatment, despite that it has been shown to be incredibly effective for many patients with treatment-resistant depression.”

Kaplin says there is ample evidence that ketamine sticks to NMDA receptors in the brain that are involved in learning and memory. Because these NMDA receptors are found together with opioid receptors, Kaplin says it’s no surprise that the can meddle with one another, like interference picked up on a phone call or static on the radio.

“This interference and cross-talk does not mean that ketamine is an opioid, and to wrongly label it as such could eventually keep patients from essential antidepressant medications that could make a huge difference in their quality of life,” said Kaplin, who plans on opening a ketamine clinic.

The debate over whether ketamine is an opioid comes at a time when its use is expanding.  Ketamine was approved by the FDA in 1970 solely as a surgical anesthetic to be taken intravenously or by injection. But a growing number of clinics now offer off-label infusions of ketamine to treat depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and difficult chronic pain conditions such as Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS).

Demand has grown so much there are reports of ketamine shortages. Although ketamine itself is inexpensive, the infusions can cost several hundred dollars and are not covered by insurance.

Ketamine Nasal Spray

Not until this year did the Food and Drug Administration approve the use of ketamine to treat depression, when it okayed a nasal spray (Spravato) made by Janssen Pharmaceuticals that contains a ketamine compound.

The FDA approved Spravato even though 2 out of 3 short term trials failed to prove its effectiveness. The spray was effective in a longer trial, but only when taken with a conventional antidepressant.

Because of the risk of abuse and side effects, Spravato can only be administered in a doctor’s office, where patients can be observed for two hours after taking a dose. A single dose will cost about $900.

The FDA has called the herbal supplement kratom an opioid because it acts on opioid receptors, but the agency has not taken that step with ketamine. Given current attitudes about opioids, it’s fair to say the FDA would have never approved Spravato if it was considered an opiate.

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In addition to its medical uses, ketamine is used as a recreational party drug – known as “Special K” -- because it can cause hallucinations and intense dream-like states.

Whether taken to get high or to treat pain and depression, it’s clear that ketamine is a potent drug that has both harms and benefits. And experts say it needs to be viewed with caution until we know with more certainty how it works.

“Unfortunately, when one approaches ketamine as another antidepressant rather than a drug of abuse, this type of trap is easy to fall into, and in the end, such mistakes can be catastrophic,” Schatzberg said in his commentary. “We have witnessed four decades of supposedly new and safer opioids that have turned out often to be, if anything, even more abusable and lethal."

4 Infusions That Can Help Relieve Chronic Pain

By Barby Ingle, Columnist

I am so excited to finally be to my favorite letter – "I" -- in my series on alternative pain treatments. The “I” stands for infusions.

There are many different types of infusions, but the four I will cover are ketamine, immunoglobulins, lidocaine and stem cells. I have done 3 of the 4, and one of my good friends has done the fourth with great success. So I feel comfortable sharing what I know about infusions based on my personal health journey.

Ketamine

I was afraid of ketamine when I first heard about it. Ketamine was created in 1962, when it was first synthesized by scientist Calvin Stevens at the Parke Davis Laboratories. Ketamine is a potent anesthetic that blocks pain by acting as a N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) receptor antagonist. It can also reset glia nerve cells in the spine and brain.

Ketamine is not appropriate for everyone. For me, I saw it as a chance to reverse the Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy (RSD) that I had been living with since 2002.  My excitement was great, along with my family’s. My regular treating doctors were not so optimistic about ketamine, but were not discouraging it either.

I began receiving ketamine infusions in 2009. They put me into remission and I continue with booster therapy as needed. I still have flares, but ketamine got me through the biggest challenges of living with RSD. Here is a video of me after my initial infusion treatments, which many find motivational.

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Before I started getting ketamine infusions, they wanted me off opioids completely so that my nervous system would reboot better. Research showed that ketamine patients on opioids were not getting the same good results as people who stopped taking them. Since then, I have also learned that opioids also set off glia cells, which is not a good thing for nerve pain patients.

Immunoglobulins

Intravenous Immunoglobulin – known as IVIg --  is used to treat various autoimmune, infectious and idiopathic diseases. One of my best friends, who has multifocal motor neuropathy, uses it to stay functional.

I have not had IVIg yet, but if ketamine didn’t work for me, I would give it a try, insurance permitting. The cost per treatment is between $5,000 and $10,000, so for many it is not an option.

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If you have the cash, the FDA has approved IVIg for graft disease and idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura (ITP). It is also used to treat patients with Kawasaki disease, Guillain-Barre syndrome, and polymyositis/dermatomyositis. I know a number of people who have used it for RSD.

One of the complaints I have heard from friends who use IVIg is that it takes time before your feel any benefits – sometimes days or weeks. If it is a viable treatment for you, there should be some changes in your symptoms and pain levels within 4 weeks.

However, some people do not respond to IVIg and it is very expensive to try just to see what happens. The cost is high because immunoglobulin products come from the pooled human plasma of a thousand or more blood donors, who have to go through an extraction process themselves before it can be processed and ready for use in infusions.

Stem Cells

Stem cell research could pave the way for an entirely new approach to chronic pain that reduces the current reliance on opioids and other analgesics.

I tried two rounds of stem cell infusions for gastroparesis, intestinal ischemia, heart valve dysfunction, cardiac ischemia, and temporomandibular joint disorder (TMJD).

The infusions reversed my gastrointestinal issues within 24 hours and my heart issues in 7 days, but it took longer for my TMJD to feel any relief. I did get some, just not as much as the other areas of my body. I also got improved function in my ovaries, with an increase in estrogen production I did not have before stem cell therapy.

The providers I worked with said it would take 6 to 8 rounds of stem cell infusions to help my nerve pain. I don’t have the money for that, so I stopped after two treatments.

Stem cell studies I have seen show great promise for multiple sclerosis patients, and I will be watching closely to see if it works for RSD and other neuro-autoimmune diseases. Stem cells could also be used as a tool to reverse opioid tolerance and opioid-induced hyperalgesia, two problematic side effects of opioid therapy.

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Lidocaine

Although my providers told me that lidocaine infusions are practically pain free, I can tell you they are not. The lidocaine infusions I was given were in conjunction with my stem cell therapy. I felt everything and came away feeling that lidocaine was not a good option for me.

My step sister did have good results from her 7-day infusions of lidocaine, so it goes to show that you have to check to see what works best for you.

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Lidocaine is an amide anesthetic and has a wide range of mechanisms of action. Research has shown that lidocaine, when given in a low dose intravenous infusion, has successfully provided pain relief for several chronic pain conditions that have failed other treatment modalities. A recent study in Pain Medicine found that lidocaine provided pain relief to 41 percent of patients, most of whom had neuropathic pain. 

According to providers at Stanford University, the success of lidocaine infusion is dependent on the specific cause of your pain. Some patients report immediate and long lasting pain relief, while others say relief came slowly and only lasted while the medication is being infused. Some patients also report unpleasant side effects.

The only adverse reaction I had – besides the fact it didn’t work for me – is that the infusion itself was extremely painful. Physicians have no way of knowing how you’ll react until you try it. By the time I was begging for help during the infusion, it was too late.

PNN columnist Crystal Lindell has been getting lidocaine infusions and they’ve helped Crystal reduce her use of painkillers. A recent study in Pain Medicine found that lidocaine provided long-lasting pain relief in 41 percent of patients, most of whom had neuropathic pain. 

I would be glad to share more of my experiences with infusions for anyone who has questions from the patient perspective. I would also love to hear your stories about infusions and whether they worked for you. 

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Barby Ingle lives with reflex sympathetic dystrophy (RSD), migralepsy and endometriosis. Barby is a chronic pain educator, patient advocate, and president of the International Pain FoundationShe is also a motivational speaker and best-selling author on pain topics.

More information about Barby can be found at her website. 

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

Why Doctors Don’t Do What Works

By Barby Ingle, Columnist

Let’s examine infusion therapies. There are multiple types, including intravenous ketamine, plasma, stem cell, immunoglobulin and lidocaine.

I have tried many of these and know from personal experience that they can work. I have also been by the side of friends who have undergone infusions with great success, including some who have gone into remission.

Infusion therapy is being performed for patients with all kinds of neuropathy conditions and it helps many recipients. It is just hard to find a doctor who will perform infusions for anything outside of IV-chemotherapy for cancer patients. Why?

Right off the bat, let’s consider costs. In the case of intravenous immunoglobulin, it is very expensive to make, so insurance companies fight it a lot and that discourages doctors from offering it.

IV-lidocaine offers some relief, but is short lasting. In the case of IV-ketamine, it is an inexpensive drug and insurance companies are covering it in many cases, depending on documentation and the protocol being used.

I know that many doctors are underpaid. They are getting cutback by insurance companies and on treatment reimbursements with Medicare. Malpractice insurance rates are very high and many doctors still have thousands of dollars in student loans to pay. Those that have their own practice make less because of the overhead costs of location and staffing.

As a former business owner, I see the valid points the doctors are making. As a patient, I wish I could fix these reasons so that more patients could be helped.

Since learning about IV therapies myself back in 2007, I started asking around for names of doctors who are performing them as viable treatment option for chronic pain diseases. What I found was that the list was very small. I started asking questions of pain doctors specifically. I did not do this as “patient Barby,” but as director of the International Pain Foundation.

Some of these doctors have seen me over the past 10 years go from “wheels to heels.” They cannot believe their eyes when they see me now. Yet they still give reasons and obstacles for not wanting to offer infusion treatments.

Many have very small offices. Even at pain management and surgical facilities, the patient takes up a spot in the recovery room or infusion room for half a day. That becomes prohibitive for doctors to deal with because it cuts down the number of patients they can treat and the amount of money they can make.

In medical school, doctors have to choose a specialty. They get general studies that include a little info on this and a little on that, but unless a doctor is interested in studying the specialty that includes your condition, they may not have ever heard of it. Even if they did study your particular condition, they may have gotten only four hours of training on it.

Looking at it from the other side, doctors do have little time for treating patients, and they have required continuing education hours that they also have to fit in. Some tend to stick to classes that reflect their area of interest, so they are not getting a wide variety of knowledge that, as patients, we tend to believe occurs. I learned the hard way that doctors are not created equal. If an illness or condition is not their specialty, they do not invest in it.

When you have an IV-ketamine infusion, a certified nurse needs to be present and monitor you the entire time. He or she can’t just come and go. Taking one staff member away for four hours at a time increases a doctor’s overhead expenses. Most doctors could not survive this type of set up. They need to see more patients.

Not only are you taking vital staff away when getting an IV infusion, you are using space. If you are taking up a chair in the recovery room at a doctor’s facility for hours, the doctor is unable to fill that chair with other paying patients. Not just paying patients, but patients who also need help, just as much as you do.

When insurance companies start to compensate doctors appropriately for IV therapies, it will resolve many of these issues and more doctors will offer infusions. I pray that it becomes widespread as an option.

In 2007, I was at a medical conference where Dr. Robert Schwartzman was speaking on infusion therapy and he said, “It will soon be the standard treatment for RSD patients.”

“Soon” in medical terms can often be 8 to 10 years. It is about time that we get better access to proper and timely care.

Barby Ingle suffers from Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy (RSD) and endometriosis. Barby is a chronic pain educator, patient advocate, and president of the International Pain Foundation. She is also a motivational speaker and best-selling author on pain topics.

More information about Barby can be found at her website.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.