Ketamine bladder: Special clinics as youth addiction ‘explodes’

Experts are warning of an alarming increase in bladder issues among young people due to chronic ketamine use.

People as young as 21 are having major, risky surgery to treat problems caused by addiction, doctors say.

Beth, an addict in her 20s, told the BBC: "I can’t walk 50 metres without either needing to sit down or needing to run to the toilet."

Latest government figures estimate ketamine use in England and Wales has more than doubled since 2016.

It has more than tripled in the under-25 age group in the same period.

Chronic ketamine usage affects the lining of the bladder, and can shrink it. As a result, some urology departments have set up specialist clinics to help the increasing number of young people with bladder issues.

Southmead Hospital in Bristol is currently helping around 60 patients from across the West - some as young as 19.

"If we are offering major surgery to a person who’s 21, then the likelihood of having any sort of complications after that surgery [in the rest of their lives] - it’s enormous," said consultant urologist Dr Carolina Ochoa.

Beth is currently addicted to the drug after trying it as a teenager, "in the classroom at school".

Ketamine ‘visible in my urine’

She says she now uses ketamine as a way of coping with past traumatic events.

"It’s just that little bit of escapism. Unfortunately, having had a few things that have gone on in my life that have led me to make these decisions and post-traumatic stress disorder, I do suffer [with my] mental health as well.

"And so that’s [ketamine] kind of been my turn-to."

Beth is now struggling with the physical impact of prolonged use as well.

Her ketamine use caused a big growth in her bladder, which had to be burnt away, and she also says the drug could be seen floating in her urine on a hospital camera screen, when she was seen by urologists.

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What is ketamine?

Ketamine is widely used in the NHS as an anaesthetic, sedative and pain reliever, and is also commonly used on animals.

Because of its hallucinogenic effects, it is also thought of as a "party drug".

It was the main reason cited in the accidental death of Friends star Matthew Perry

Known on the street as Special K, it usually comes as a crystalline powder or liquid.

Getty Images Matthew Perry from the TV series Friends wearing a suit and tie Getty Images

Ketamine was one of the major factors in the death of Friends TV star Matthew Perry

Ketamine is classed by the government as a Class-B drug, which means it is illegal to take, carry, make or sell.

Tolerance is known to build quickly, so users increasingly need more and more to feel an effect.

Chronic usage affects the lining of the bladder, and can shrink it.

This can lead to frequency in needing to urinate, infections, bleeding, blockages and incontinence.

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’Very serious consequences’

Dr Mohammed Belal is from the British Association of Urological Surgeons, which is now putting together a document to help other health professionals spot the signs of ‘ketamine bladder’.

"I think we’ve seen a huge explosion of young people taking ketamine throughout the country, and that means that they come to see us with a significant urinary symptoms and these symptoms can include going to the toilet every hour or even every half an hour," he said.

"Ketamine destroys the lining of the bladder, and that can have very serious consequences.

"We’ve noticed lots of young patients with severe bladder problems that we would not expect to see until patients are much older."

Pagan in a hospital gown sitting in a hospital bed

Pagan has recovered from a 12-year addiction to ketamine

Pagan, from Oxfordshire, has now recovered from a 12-year addiction to ketamine, and is using her experience to try and help others get clean.

At her worst point she said she was taking more than 10 grams a day.

’I wanted to die’

"I wanted to die, yeah, I just didn’t want to be alive anymore," she said.

"I didn’t want to be in the world in that pain - completely reliant on ketamine."

As a result of her addiction Pagan’s daughter was adopted, she had bladder surgery and ended up going to rehab for the third time in 2022.

"I spent eight weeks in hospital and I kind of felt like I tempted fate too many times, so I needed to give it up, otherwise I would have would have ended up dead."

Pagan smiling

Pagan is now a peer mentor for other people struggling with addiction

She says her journey to recovery was "really, really difficult" at first, and she couldn’t have done it without the support of drug and alcohol charity Turning Point, where she now volunteers as a peer mentor.

’It’s never too late’

In a statement the UK government told the BBC it is committed to offering support and tackling the supply of illegal drugs.

Jasmine King is a specialist urologist nurse at Southmead Hospital, working to help people struggling with the impacts of chronic ketamine use.

She describes the increase in patients as "very concerning" and urges people to seek support through drug charities, mental health services and hospitals if needed.

"One thing I want to make people aware of is if they do come and see us, we are not judging them," she said.

"We’re here to support them and help them with their problems. We just want to help."

As for Pagan, she says: "No matter how much you think it’s taken your life, it’s never too late to reach out for help."