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Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s Death Signals Need for Change in Addiction Treatment

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Among his many memorable roles, Phillip Seymour Hoffman once played a doomed addict in Eugene O’Neill’s drama “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.” Tragically, it was an example of life imitating art.

The 46-year old Academy award-winner died on Sunday from an apparent heroin overdose. The end came after years of struggle against substance abuse and drug addiction including prescription painkillers.

For every celebrated victim of drug or drug combinations--like Hoffman or singer Amy Winehouse or TV star Corey Montieth--there are thousands more who die in obscurity from a problem that is increasing faster than the public health community’s ability to control it.

According to the US Centers for Disease Control, overdoses from prescription painkillers have tripled over the last twenty years, killing more than 15,500 people in 2009.

There is no simple answer to prescription painkiller abuse, but there are many relevant questions doctors and their patients need to ask before that initial prescription leads to dependence and ultimately addiction.

Patients seeking relief from prescription painkillers should know that they merely mask underlying symptoms, which can result from a number of physical, emotional or lifestyle issues. While doctors take an oath to “do no harm” some practitioners are enabling the easy path of drug dependence.

In fact, a study done at the University of Buffalo in 2010 found that prescription painkillers are a first step toward addiction for many, making these legal treatments a “gateway” to drugs like heroin, which are cheaper and more powerful. The researchers found that of 75 patients hospitalized for drug treatment, 31 of them said their addiction started with legally prescribed painkillers.

However, blaming physicians who want to help patients in pain captures the consequence of the problem, not its cause. This is a society that is happy to sell us a prescription pill when we’re ill, instead of promoting a pathway to better health.

While complimentary and alternative remedies like natural anti-inflammatories, along with meditation and acupuncture can safely and effectively relieve pain, that’s not the whole story. Patients who commit to a healthier lifestyle including a better diet, doing a reasonable amount of exercise and reducing stress can find that every small step they take in the right direction leads them closer to a pain free life.

When a celebrity like Phillip Seymour Hoffman dies; it’s an opportunity to reflect on a tragedy that could have been prevented and one that will almost certainly happen again unless we learn how to manage pain, personally and professionally.

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