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Sports Dentistry: Treatment & Prevention of Sports-Related Dental Injuries

Sports dentistry involves prevention of injury to the hard and soft tissues of the mouth, through the use of properly fitted mouth guards. Contrary to what you might think, sports dentistry is for everybody — not just professional athletes or those on college teams.

In recent years, sports dentistry has expanded to support athletic performance with the use of performance enhancing mouth wear intended to optimize athletes’ competitive edge. Sports dentistry also addresses the prevention of oral cancer by encouraging the cessation of tobacco and smokeless tobacco use. This is particularly important given the manner in which the use of certain tobacco products is “glorified” by athletes and shown in the media.

Preventing Sports Injuries to the Mouth

Traditionally, the emphasis on injury prevention associated with sports dentistry has involved educating parents and young athletes — as well as professional athletes — about the benefits of mouth guards, face masks and other protective equipment for the head, face and mouth.

According to members of the Academy of Sports Dentistry, mouth guards offer wearers more than basic teeth protection. Mouth guards create a cushion that provides potential stabilization of the temporomandibular joint (TMJ) while also helping to prevent injury to the joint. In addition, they can substantially reduce the type of injury affecting the soft tissues — such as the lips and gum tissues surrounding the teeth. In general, mouth guards can help provide protection against numerous serious injuries, including those to the face and head.

Contrary to popular belief, regulations regarding the use of mouth guards during sports activities typically fall under the authority of the sport’s governing bodies and not individual states. The National Federation of High School Athletics (NFHSA) has established rules for all sports that require mouth guards in schools, which include high school football, hockey and lacrosse. Mouth guards also are mandatory for youth league sports and wrestlers with dental braces.

Treating Sports Injuries to the Mouth

Sports dentistry also involves treatment of athletes to repair injuries to the teeth and mouth sustained during athletic competition.Sports injuries to the mouth and oral environment can be disfiguring and costly, both financially and in terms of athletes’ time away from school, work or training. Sports-related injuries to the mouth can become expensive, depending upon the nature and extent of the trauma. Fortunately, many sports-related injuries to the mouth can be easily prevented with properly designed mouth guard protection.

Sports injuries to the mouth and oral tissues are not necessarily treated any differently than other traumatic injuries to the oral tissues. However, some athletes may need to be treated on a specific timeline and/or in consideration of game schedules. For example, some athletes may need to be provided with temporary restorations until permanent, long-term treatments can be properly planned and scheduled.

Protecting your teeth is something all dentists emphasize; but, sports dentists in particular can’t stress enough the importance of wearing a mouth guard. Playing sports without a mouth guard significantly increases your risk for facial trauma(s).

For instance, a sudden mishap while playing basketball could lead to injuries such as biting through your lip(s) and/or severely fracturing your front teeth. In addition, playing football could result in injuries such as losing some of your teeth as a result of blunt trauma to the face, or fractures to the upper arch of your mouth. To avoid unfortunate facial traumas commonly associated with sports activities, wearing a mouth guard is crucial.

Qualifications of Sports Dentists

In the United States, there is no fellowship or residency program for sports dentistry as there is for sports medicine. Some dental schools include only limited coverage of sports dentistry in their programs.

The Academy of Sports Dentistry — which is recognized by the American Dental Association — is the most reputable professional dental association that provides continuing sports dentistry education and training to dentists. The Academy also provides dentists with guidance about what is appropriate regarding mouth guards and injury protection, as well as information from reputable sources about what is proven, researched and recommended.

Types of Mouth Guards in Sports Dentistry

Dentists help athletes prevent mouth injury by protecting the hard tissue — such as the teeth and jawbones — and the soft tissue by providing a fitted mouth guard. Ensuring a proper mouth guard fit is essential. If it’s not properly fitted, athletes may complain that the mouth guard is cumbersome, making it difficult to speak or breathe. As a result, they likely won’t wear it.

A number of mouth guard types are available. These include boil-and-bite mouth guards (available at retail stores) and custom, dentist-made mouth guards. One layer boil-and-bite mouth guards are considered inferior to dentist-made mouth guards and better multilayer self-customizing mouth guards purchased at sporting goods stores. In fact, the free boil-and-bite mouth guards provided to school athletes usually are the low-end, poor-fitting mouth guards, experts say. Made of thermoplastic, boil-and-bite mouth guards are placed in boiling water and then molded to the contours of the teeth. If necessary, boil-and-bite mouth guards can be reheated and readjusted to an ideal position. Custom-fitted mouth guards, which are fabricated from a cast to accurately fit your teeth, are typically made using acrylic and contain hard outer layers and soft inner layers for comfort. Some mouth guards are made with other kinds of materials for those who are allergic to acrylic.

Performance Enhancing Mouth Wear

Performance enhancing mouth wear is based on craniofacial neurometabolic physiology, which involves how the relationship of the jaws affects an athlete’s performance. Such appliances include the Under Armour Performance Enhancing Mouthguard by Bite Tech, and the PPM (Pure Power Mouthguard) by Makkar. Other performance enhancing mouth guards are available from Shock Doctor.

The claim of performance enhancing mouth guards is an enhancement of athletic performance through optimal jaw alignment. By bringing the jaw into an alignment position that is ideal for performance, the body is theoretically able to function more efficiently and with improved strength, endurance and speed. Considered a type of mandibular orthopedic repositioning appliance (MORA), performance enhancing mouth wear adjusts the gap in the lower jaw joint, creating a balanced and relaxed strength-enhancing benefit when an athlete clenches.

Performance Enhancing Mouth Wear Costs

The research on performance enhancing mouth wear is limited, but an increasing number of published, controlled studies are proving that performance benefits from such appliances are real, not just a placebo effect. Regardless, many dentists and those involved in athletics are skeptical about the validity of these devices. And with price tags that range from $25 for a custom-molded, sporting goods store brand, up to $500 for a basic Under Armour mouth piece — and higher to between $595 to $2,250 for a Makkar PPM version — it’s easy to understand why.

Sports Dentistry: Is it Right for You?

Dentists providing sports dentistry aren’t reserved for professional athletes. Dentists in your area may provide sports dentistry consultations and properly fitted mouth guards to sports teams affiliated with local high schools, community colleges or other amateur groups. They also may provide trauma treatment if and when unfortunate sports-related injuries affecting the mouth, teeth and other oral tissues do occur. Now, with the introduction of performance enhancing mouth wear, dentists also may be able to help you improve your game, too.