Local dentists tackle football safety, donate mouth guards

August 21, 2012

By Matt Carstens

Katie Wilson (left), a dental assistant with Issaquah Dental Arts, and Issaquah High School incoming freshman Tyrus Tuiasosopo show how the plaster impression of his teeth was made for his mouth guard. By Greg Farrar

No one likes to go to the dentist. But when a few visits to the dental chair might prevent a lifetime of returning to the dentist instead of returning kick-offs to the end zone, Issaquah High School football players might just oblige.

That’s what Dr. Chad Merkel and Dr. Justin Hansen are encouraging as they donate custom-fit mouth guards to the Issaquah High School football team.

In a world where safety isn’t exactly the coolest thing, Merkel and Hansen know that if a comfortable and sleeker looking mouth guard is available, that might be what it takes to prevent injuries.

“They’re required to wear something,” Merkel said. “So if we can make it more comfortable, and it looks cooler, then they’re more likely to wear it. That’s the idea.”

Merkel and Hansen knew about the material and were asked by some of their patients if they made the mouth guards. With office manager Tasha Tuiasosopo’s son Tyrus on the football team, the pair of dentists decided to look further into the material.

Tyrus’ father Zach Tuiasosopo, who played fullback for the University of Washington, said this was a unique opportunity for the young football players.

“It’s not something you see a lot in high school football,” he said. “They all have to wear something, it’s a mandated rule, but the opportunity for them to get a custom-fitted mouth guard is very cool. There’s limited opportunities to get them. We never got them in high school.”

Even when Zach attended the UW, the opportunities for custom-fitted mouth guards were few and far between.

“You were getting whatever you got at the local sports store or Fred Meyer,” Zach said. “But eventually we got them when I was in college, but even that was limited as well. To get them at the high school level is awesome.”

The biggest difference for the player is the comfort of the form-fitting mouth guard compared to the one-size-fits-all approach taken by store-bought ones.

“The biggest thing for us is comfort,” Zach said. “It’s a lot more comfortable and user-friendly. I’m not the doctor, but there might be benefits than just your standard form fitting.”

Thicker is better

And he’s right. According to the Journal of the American Dental Association, your standard “boil-and-bite” mouth guards lose between 70 percent and 99 percent of their occlusal thickness. In other words, once it’s in the athlete’s mouth, it’s not serving quite the purpose it should.

“You can control the thickness a little better,” Hansen said. “Sometimes with the boil-and-bite ones, when you do go to bite down it thins out in the higher-impact areas anyways. It gets a little thinner so when you actually do get hit, instead of having two to three millimeters of spongy material you only have one millimeter.”

The process includes two appointments, one to take a fitting of a patient’s mouth, and a second to try the mouth guard out to make sure it fits and to make any adjustments that might be necessary.

“So what we do is take an impression of the top teeth with this plaster material,” Merkel said. “So you pour it into the impression we take of the teeth, then you take it to make the sports guard.

“Then, you put the sheet in a machine and it’s formed with a vacuum onto this model and that’s why it fits so well,” he said. “Then, you trim it to any point where it’s comfortable. So if it’s hitting on the palate side of the teeth you can adjust it, smooth everything out real nice so it’s comfortable and there you go.”

Custom-fit comfort

Tyrus tried out his new purple-and-gold mouth guard and everything seemed to check out OK.

“It’s a lot more comfortable than the regular ones,” he said. “This is my first year with this one. I haven’t actually played with it yet, but I’m looking forward to it.”

Since most football players are out and about doing other sports year round, the mouth guard can be used for pretty much anything.

“Since in football it’s a required thing, everyone’s going to wear something,” Hansen said. “But having something that’s custom fitting, it can help in any other sports or activities. You see LeBron James, who’s popping his in and out.”

“LeBron has some gold put in his, too,” Merkel said. “We’re not quite on that level.”

Since dental trauma is so common across the sporting landscape, sometimes it’s not even impact sports that see the most injuries.

“There are sports that aren’t typically contact sports but have a high incident rate in dental trauma,” Hansen said. “Dental injuries don’t always heal like a broken bone and get you back to where you were before, and that sets you up for a lifetime of dental appointments and expense, and not quite fitting right. Avoiding trauma in any sport or any activity you’re in is just really important.”

So while going to the dentist might not be the most fun thing, neither are visits from the tooth fairy when you’re in high school.

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