ENGINEERING AN END TO JAWBREAKERS : At Alemany, a Team Dentist Stands Guard With Mold Fit to Protect Athlete's Mouth and Possibly Even Improve Performance

Times Staff Writer

Travis Bargeman pivots in mid-run and catches the football for an Alemany High first down. As he's tackled, the wide receiver crashes into a pile of bodies and is jabbed in the mouth by an elbow.

Bargeman gets up and grins.

His teeth are intact. He hasn't even cut his lip.

Biting securely down on his mouth guard, Bargeman returns to the huddle.

On the Alemany sideline, Stewart Balikov, a Panorama City dentist, looks satisfied.

The mouth guard, custom made by Balikov, just saved Bargeman's smile.

Balikov is Alemany's team dentist--perhaps the only high school team dentist in the Valley area.

When people find out he's at a game, Balikov said, "The first thing they think is that I'm going to do an emergency filling."

It wasn't tooth decay that got Balikov involved with Alemany. It was Bargeman, who has attracted more than his share of elbows to the mouth.

Last year, Bargeman was hit by an elbow during basketball practice when he wasn't using a mouth guard. He was wearing braces on his teeth at the time, and had already undergone orthodontic surgery. The elbow jarred one of Bargeman's wire-bound teeth and could have ruined thousands of dollars of corrective dentistry.

After the injury, Bargeman was ordered by his orthodontist to wear a mouth guard or give up athletics.

Bargeman is regarded as a valuable commodity on the court and the field. This past football season, he caught 25 passes for 626 yards and 6 touchdowns. He plays guard for the Alemany basketball team.

Bargeman, like many other athletes, wasn't comfortable wearing the standard mouth guard. Balikov solved the problem by designing a more comfortable custom mouth guard.

Alemany basketball Coach Joe Anlauf said that since Bargeman began wearing the mouth guard, he has been free of mouth injuries.

"Travis used to get hurt in the mouth all the time," Anlauf said. "After he got the mouth guard, he was only hurt once--at a practice when he forgot the mouth guard."

For his part in keeping Bargeman on the team, Balikov was given an award of appreciation at the basketball banquet last year.

A custom mouth guard, costing about $80, is made from a plaster replica of the athlete's mouth. A soft plastic is molded to the replica, and when it cools, the piece fits the precise shape of the athlete's teeth and jaw.

A standard mouth guard, sold for about a dollar, is a made of less expensive plastic that is softened in hot water. An athlete then bites into the plastic to form the piece around the teeth.

"A regular mouth guard doesn't fit anything like the custom kind," Bargeman said.

The custom mouth guard fits more snugly and makes breathing and talking easier.

"A stock mouth guard is better than nothing," said Balikov, "but it's like taping a broken arm up with sticks when a cast would do a better job."

Balikov has been to most of the Alemany football and basketball games for the last two years.

"It's an enjoyable job," Balikov said, "being there, helping the teams. I feel like I'm getting more out of it than they are."

That may be true.

Dudley Rooney, Alemany athletic director, said that Balikov has yet to treat an emergency at a game, such as a dental concussion.

Balikov said that dental concussions occur when the lower jaw is bumped and pushes the brain up against the inside of the skull.

"The lower jaw is separated from the base of the skull by a small disc of cartilage," Balikov said. "We're not talking about a lot of space. When the jaw is hit, a player can receive a dental concussion."

A custom mouth guard, Balikov said, can help prevent the injury. Because of that, the dentist calls the mouth guard "the most important piece of equipment" for athletes.

Others agree with Balikov.

Harry Welch, Canyon High's football coach, is another advocate of the custom mouth guard.

"I would much rather have a professional take the care to accurately fit someone's teeth," Welch said, "than pay a dollar for some mass-produced piece of plastic and a minimal fit."

Welch said that he has asked the athletic director at Canyon about getting custom mouth guards for the varsity team. Financial considerations have so far kept the school from funding the purchase.

"We might hold a fund-raiser so we can get the custom mouth guards," Welch said. "It is my understanding that a good mouthpiece minimizes concussions, and I'm more concerned with that than with the teeth and gums."

Dentists, of course, are concerned about the teeth and gums as well.

Four years ago, Balikov and other dentists and orthodontists formed the American Academy of Sports Dentistry, which has met annually at an East Coast university.

The academy's president-elect, Spiro Chaconas, has been the team dentist at UCLA since 1971. Two years before that, Chaconas started the orthodontics department at UCLA. He began making custom mouth guards for the water polo team, then added the Bruin football and basketball teams.

"One time I spoke to a group of trainers for an hour--with the piece in my mouth," Chaconas said. "Afterwards, the first question was, 'Can an athlete talk with it in?' "

Chaconas' pitch for the custom mouth guard has caught the attention of the World Boxing Assn. The WBA has issued a research grant to the UCLA sports medicine department, and has asked Chaconas to develop a custom mouth guard for professional boxers.

The mouth guard that boxers use now is a hinged piece of plastic that is difficult to breathe through. Balikov is designing a piece that will be made of softer plastic and will make breathing easier by eliminating the hinge.

There is some evidence that a mouth guard might actually increase an athlete's performance.

After the Winter Olympics in 1980, an orthodontist from New Jersey claimed to have increased the strength of a bobsled team by making the sledders wear special mouth guards that forced their mouths open an extra five millimeters.

The device is called a "MORA," which stands for mandibular orthodontic repositioning appliance.

Chaconas led a study in 1983 to determine the strength of various athletes when the jaw was at three different positions. He found that the MORA affects every athlete differently.

More studies will be done when the academy meets at UCLA in June of 1987, giving Balikov and other Southern California dentists an opportunity to participate.

Balikov said that custom mouth guards can be made by most dentists and orthodontists. He said that the guards should be worn not only for football and basketball, but also wrestling and volleyball.

"As far as sports medicine is concerned," Balikov said, "custom mouth guards are one of the best-kept secrets."

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