With mouthpiece, dentist tackles concussions - NFL says more evidence needed
By Keith Reed, Globe Staff
If New England Patriots wide receiver Deion Branch never has another concussion, he can thank former boxing champ ''Marvelous " Marvin Hagler and Gerald Maher, his Weymouth dentist.
In 1980, the Brockton-bred pugilist called Maher, a specialist in jaw structure and facial pain, to ask why his crushing punches floored some opponents, while others walked away from them.
Maher's answer was that the alignment of the jaw made some people susceptible to concussions -- catch somebody with his mouth in the wrong position, and it's lights out.
He created a mouthpiece that kept Hagler's jaw in the right spot, preventing Hagler -- and many other professional athletes since then -- from suffering the injury, which results from a violent jarring of the head that renders the victim unconscious and in some cases induces vomiting or permanent memory loss.
Now Maher, who has filed for a patent, is pushing the National Football League, which doesn't require its players to wear mouthpieces, to study whether his device or others like it could protect athletes from concussions that might end their careers -- or worse.
''For safety reasons, I think it would help every player, and I'm interested in the safety of every player in the NFL," Maher said.
He has fitted about two-thirds of the Patriots for the devices, and hand-delivered a mouthpiece to former Patriots nose tackle Ted Washington in Houston on the day of the 2004 Super Bowl.
None of the players Maher has outfitted have suffered concussions using the equipment, he said. The Patriots reported no concussions last season.
Scores of athletes, from high school footballers to professional basketball stars, have pushed Maher's device between their teeth, convinced it will help protect them.
Maher said he has applied for a $125,000 grant from the NFL to fit a team other than the Patriots -- perhaps a college football squad -- with his mouthpieces so their effectiveness can be objectively studied. Pellman said he's unaware of the status of that application, but that the league, along with Wayne State University, is building a sophisticated model to study the effectiveness of several mouthpieces, including Maher's, in preventing concussions.
If the NFL wants more evidence, Duxbury High School's football coach might be worth calling. Eleven of the team's players had previously suffered concussions, some three or four times. After hearing about Maher's mouthpieces, the coach, Dave Maimaron, asked the dentist to fit the players who had suffered concussions. There were no concussions last season, and Duxbury went undefeated, taking a state championship.
''I almost feel like we had an advantage this season," Maimaron said. ''Everybody should be wearing this thing. I'd be very surprised if that doesn't happen."
Concussions are common in volatile sports like boxing, whose very object is to hit your opponent harder than your opponent hits you, and football, where 200- to 300-pound men collide and send each other into the ground over and over.
Maher's mouthpieces are designed on the principle that keeping an athlete's jawbone and temporal mandibular joint properly aligned absorbs the force of blows that would otherwise literally rattle their skulls and cause a concussion. The most susceptible position, he argues, is when the mouth is tightly closed. Then, the force of a blow can travel unobstructed up the jawbone and into the skull. Helmets protect against concussions and other injuries caused by blows to the crown of the head, but their chin straps keep players' jaws in precisely the position that Maher argues puts them at risk.
His mouthpieces separate the jawbone from the joint slightly, helping to absorb the blows. They also fit tightly over the bottom row of teeth, letting football players talk to each other. Besides Branch, Patriots Asante Samuel, Vince Wolfolk and Daniel Graham wear the mouthpieces.
While he waits for an answer from the NFL, Maher is teaching other dentists how to fit their patients with the mouthpiece and certifying companies to produce them, hoping to open up the market for the devices. Two dentists have been certified to fit patients, and 10 others are in training.
Maher said he doesn't think he can eradicate concussions, but he thinks many are preventable.
''You would never say to an athlete that they're not going to get a concussion," he said. ''But I want to put them in the best position to try and prevent that."
For more information on the Maher Mouth Guard, visit www.mahercorlabs.com.