Battery-powered gum shield that ends misery of dry mouth

A battery-powered ‘gumshield’ is being used to treat dry mouth, a painful condition affecting around one in ten people over 50.

The device fits over the lower teeth and uses minor electric shocks to trigger saliva production.

Healthy people produce around three pints of saliva a day. It is crucial for aiding digestion by softening food as well as fighting dental bacteria. It is also necessary for basic functions such as speaking and swallowing.

A battery-powered gumshield is being used to treat dry mouth, a painful condition affecting around one in ten people over 50. A battery-powered gumshield is being used to treat dry mouth, a painful condition affecting around one in ten people over 50.

Gumshields, similar to those pictured right but battery-powered will emit small electric shocks to trigger saliva production and reduce dry mouth symptoms

However, many people do not produce enough saliva, a condition known as dry mouth, or xerostomia.

It usually occurs as a side-effect of particular drugs, such as blood pressure pills, antidepressants and antihistamines.

Dry mouth is also linked to diabetes and Parkinson’s disease, and is often triggered by treatment for head and neck cancers.

The condition can make swallowing painful, and increases the risk of infection in the lining of the mouth or throat, or in the gums.

Treatments vary according to the severity of the symptoms. For some, frequent sips of water are enough to provide relief, while others rely on the use of spray and gels which help lubricate the mouth.

However, many find these do not last long enough.

The new horseshoe-shaped device, which is tailor-made for each patient, sends out a mild, painless electric current.

This stimulates the nerves in the mouth and, in turn, triggers the salivary glands to produce more saliva.

Dry mouth is linked to diabetes and Parkinson’s disease, and is often triggered by treatment for head and neck cancers

The patient turns the device on and off with a hand-held remote control — it is meant to be used for a maximum of ten minutes an hour.

Previous research has demonstrated it can help patients with dry mouth caused by medications or diseases such as Sjorgen’s syndrome and Parkinson’s.

In a new trial, 84 patients — all suffering dry mouth as a result of cancer treatment — will be provided with a custom-made device and asked to use it at home for 12 months.

The patients will be recruited from NHS hospitals in London and Bradford; 40 will be given the functioning device, while the remaining 44 will receive a placebo one.

Neither the patients nor the doctors will know whether they have been given the active device.

Andrew McCombe, an ear, nose and throat surgeon at Frimley Park Hospital, Surrey, says: ‘This looks really interesting.

Xylimelts available in Britain are designed to melt overnight and increase moisture in the mouth by morning

Xylimelts available in Britain are designed to melt overnight and increase moisture in the mouth by morning

“I suspect it will be helpful for those individuals who still retain some salivary gland function.

“Inpeople who have suffered such damage to the salivary glands that they no longer function, I suspect it will prove relatively ineffective.

‘Still, it’s an elegant way of using a more natural, physiological approach to stimulating salivary production, rather than using drug treatments.’

Meanwhile, scientists have developed another new treatment for dry mouth — a mint-flavoured ‘disc’ that is stuck on to the gum or tooth. This is designed to melt during the night.

The disc, smaller than a 20p coin, contains 500mg of xylitol, an ingredient that stimulates saliva production (this is a sugar substitute and common component of chewing gum).

It has a vegetable gum adhesive that is used to stick it to the molars (the large teeth at the back of the mouth).

Results from the small trial by dentists at the University of Washington showed that it led to a three-fold improvement in symptoms within a week and reduced levels of discomfort.

In the trial, patients aged 19 to 66 used one disc 30 minutes after taking breakfast, lunch and dinner, and two before retiring to bed. The discs were left in place until they dissolved.

Results show that oral moisture scores increased more than three-fold in the morning, and patients could still taste the tablet upon waking, suggesting that the released ingredients remained in the mouth throughout sleep.

According to its developers, all the ingredients dissolve in saliva — even if a disc were to come off the teeth and accidentally be inhaled, it would dissolve and all materials would be transported out of the lungs.

In the U.S. it has been allowed to be sold and labelled as food. The product, called Xylimelts, is available in Britain.

‘This is a neat approach that is very low-risk,’ Mr McCombe says.