For anyone who watched the luge competition at the Lake Placid Olympics, the most profound impression left by the sport was one of weirdness. Striking a weird pose on a weird contraption, these weirdly dressed athletes—they wore flimsy, skintight jumpsuits of the most sinister hues—went careening down a weirdly twisting course. Ah, but perhaps the weirdest thing of all about the lugers, at least those on the U.S. team, went unnoticed. They wore mouthpieces. Nothing strange about that—except that the Americans wore them not to protect their teeth but because they believed the mouthpiece to be a secret weapon that infuses its wearer's muscles with extra strength, heightens his concentration and, especially, makes pain go away. Crazy, right? Well, what do you expect from people who voluntarily go shooting through icy turns at 60 mph while lying on their backs?
That's just the point. Lugers must keep their heads slightly raised so they can see to steer their rocketing sleds. This means their head and neck muscles are constantly tensed during runs, and that strain is exacerbated by forces of two to four Gs. All this stress causes severe headaches. There's hardly anything a luger will not try if it promises to alleviate the throb of nagging headache pain, and this was what the mouthpieces were said to do. As it turned out, they did, really. In addition, the U.S. luge team achieved its best results ever in an Olympics, and the bobsledders, who were quick to put the bite on the magic mouthpieces after hearing of the lugers' success with them, performed better than they had in 24 years.
The mouthpiece in question isn't the horseshoe-shaped soft rubber thing that can be bought in a sporting goods store for a couple of dollars. This mouthpiece is small and nearly weightless, two strips of acrylic material that fit precisely over the lower molars and the bicuspids. They're held painlessly in place by two small stainless-steel clasps that latch between the first and second bicuspids and a bridge of stainless-steel wire that passes behind the lower incisors. It's very comfortable and easy to install, and most wearers can speak clearly with it in their mouths. They can even eat while wearing one.
The mouthpieces used by the lugers and bobsledders were made to measure by Dr. Richard Kaufman, a 42-year-old orthodontist from Oceanside, N.Y. Kaufman belongs to a small group of doctors who are active in the virtually unheard-of field of sports dentistry. 'The head is often ignored in the development of an athlete," says Kaufman. "A dentist can control 50% of the body." Over the past six years, Kaufman has helped people to perform better and feel better by giving them something to sink their teeth into.
The luge team first learned of Kaufman's magic mouthpiece from Carole Maddox, mother of luger Jim Maddox. Carole, a registered nurse, had seen Kaufman being interviewed on TV and urged her son to be fitted for the appliance. After a while not only did Jim notice he didn't get headaches when he wore the piece, but U.S. Coach Piotr Rogowski also observed that Maddox didn't crash as often as he had, that, in fact, he seemed better at controlling his sled. Rogowski, a native of Poland who came to the U.S. in 1974, recalls that he had to submit to thorough dental examinations as a competitor in that country in the 1960s and suspects that all the top Eastern European lugers have been wearing mouthpieces for years.
Last January Kaufman was invited to come to Lake Placid and make mouthpieces for 16 lugers who were training for the U.S. Olympic team. Debbie Genovese, a 25-year-old dental assistant from Rockford, Ill. who wound up 15th in the Games, tying the best finish for an American woman ever, said, "I feel the mouthpiece really improved my performance. I felt more comfortable on the sled when I was wearing it. It reduced my headaches and kept my teeth from chattering."
Joe Tyler, 32, of Saranac Lake, N.Y. is one of eight bobsledders who ordered mouthpieces and, together with Brent Rushlaw, came in a respectable sixth in the Olympic two-man competition. "Our sport is just as jarring as the luge," he says, "and the mouthpiece acts as a shock absorber. But the greatest benefit I got from wearing it was an increase in strength while lifting weights. The biggest change took place in my legs."
Tyler says that he was able to do four soleus calf raises of 135 pounds without the mouthpiece. Wearing the mouthpiece, he is able to do as many as 20 reps. Tyler, a brakeman, does most of the pushing at the start of a bob run. Once he started using his mouthpiece he lowered his push time over the first 50 meters to less than five seconds. "I had been trying to break the five-second mark for six years," he says.
All this seems to call for comparing Kaufman's mouthpiece with Samson's hair, but, according to Kaufman, the mouthpiece doesn't add power, it simply releases strength a person already has that's tied up by stress. Strength is sapped when one's jaw is out of whack or when one's teeth are not properly aligned. One may even have such manifestations of TMJ distress without knowing it. Those initials refer to the temporomandibular joint, which connects the lower jaw to the skull. If the TMJ is under stress because of an imbalance, it uses up muscle strength, causing fatigue and pain. "It's like sitting on the edge of a chair," says Kaufman. "You can't do it for long without straining all sorts of muscles." Kaufman estimates that about 80% of the U.S. population suffers from TMJ misalignment but that most people are unaware of the cause of their discomfort.
"What Happens is that the brain picks up the fact of the misalignment from the bite when you swallow, from your teeth when they touch," says Kaufman. "Then the brain sends the message to, let's say, your arm to compensate for the misalignment, and the arm has to work that much harder and it will tire faster."