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Dental Injuries in Sports and How to Prevent Them

Kickboxer woman poses with sports mouth guard

According to the American Dental Assistants’ Association, around 15 million Americans suffer traumatic dental injuries each year. Around 1/3rd of those injuries occurs in athletics, resulting in the loss of over five million teeth each year.

When playing high-contact sports, you put your entire body at risk, but your teeth and gums are particularly vulnerable, with an average 1 in 10 risk of facial and dental injury. These sorts of traumatic injuries can result in:

  • Chipping, cracking, or loss of the whole tooth
  • Excruciating pain and hypersensitivity
  • Gum swelling
  • Tooth discoloration
  • Limited mouth mobility

Trauma this painful should be attended to with emergency dental care ASAP. Perhaps the worst part, besides the pain, is that most dental-related sports injuries are preventable. As reported by the American Dental Association, not wearing a sports occlusal guard can increase the likelihood of dental-related sports injuries 60 times over, yet most child athletes (around 84%) do not wear these appliances.

Read on for a better understanding of sports-related dental injuries, what can be done to prevent them, and who you should count on to help prevent them.

Most Common Sports-Related Dental Injuries

It’s reasonable to assume that any sport high in physical contact will naturally have a higher risk of injury, including orofacial injuries. But surprisingly, even lower contact sports aren’t totally safe; one Junior American Dental Association study of male college athletes observed a five times higher risk of dental injury in basketball than football, bizarrely enough.

That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t wear a mouthguard in football, lacrosse, hockey, rugby, martial arts, or any other sport with a high predisposition to physical contact. One possible factor for those lower injury rates could be related to the fact that the NCAA mandates mouthguard wear in football, but not in basketball.

Without taking that basic safety precaution of wearing an appliance, you open yourself up to suffering all manner of dental injuries. Here are some of the most common suffered in sports:

  • Cracked/chipped tooth: Often results from unexpected blows to the face. This can cause sharp pain, erode pieces of enamel, and expose the nerves, roots, and pulp.
  • Tooth intrusion: This occurs when a tooth is partially driven into the bone. Can cause displacement, painful nerve pressure, bleeding, and in some cases, necrotic infection.
  • Tooth avulsion: Complete dislodgement and displacement of teeth. May cause severe pain, lacerated bleeding, disorientation, and infection.
  • Fractured root: Trauma to the dental roots. Usually not visible, though you may notice pain when biting, a draining sinus tract that looks like an ulcer, or subtle cracks in the enamel.

When suffering one of these injuries, you will need prompt emergency care, typically administered by an endodontist who specializes in handling these injuries. That care may include root canal treatment, reattachment and stabilization with a splint, replacement implants, prescription medication, or additional surgical procedures if needed.

It’s best not to put this off — waiting too long can cause root resorption (or irritation) to set in, and you’ll be unable to reattach the avulsed tooth. Even better is doing your due diligence to prevent these traumatic dental injuries in the first place with one simple step: wearing a mouthguard.

Where Can I Get a Custom Sports Mouthguard?

You can acquire stock mouthguards for sports or conventional orthodontics over the counter, at any online or offline retailer that carries them. That said, it’s best to get personalized, custom-fit guards from a licensed dentist or orthodontist. Even though custom fit mouthguards are a little more expensive than retail options, they are a worthy investment, as a dental professional will have the expertise needed to:

  • Design a durable appliance
  • Design an appliance that uniquely fits your bite
  • Determine if any other underlying issues could be at play

Like most conventional orthodontic occlusal guards, they are typically made from cured plastics and/or vinyls, which are molded from an impression the provider takes of your dental shape. Unlike those conventional guards, however, protective sports mouthguards may be reinforced by multiple layers to create extra thickness, shielding, and stability.

Think of these types of occlusal guards being for your teeth what bike helmets are for your head — occlusal guards for sports protection typically cost significantly less than occlusal guards designed to treat TMD and bruxism. Both types of occlusal guards cost significantly less than emergency dental care out of pocket, so either way, what are you waiting for?

Can I Wear A Sports Mouthguard At Night To Treat Other Conditions?

No. Sports mouthguards cannot replace custom fit occlusal guards for bruxism treatment or TMD pain relief, nor should anyone use a mouthguard for multiple purposes.

Sports occlusal guards are only designed to be worn for only an hour or two at a time; wearing it eight hours per night could put increased strain and soreness on your jaw, as your bite is “propped” slightly open, potentially worsening TMD. Also, many sports occlusal guards cover above the gumline; forcing that coverage for 8 hours at a time could cause bacteria to accumulate.

The opposite holds true as well. Occlusal guards for TMD and bruxism are usually thinner and cover just below the gumline. These types of guards will not offer the sufficient protection needed to absorb a ball, puck, punch, slip, trip, tackle, or any of the potential traumatic impacts in high-contact sports.

Ultimately, it’s important to use each tool for their respective purpose, and consult an experienced dentist or orthodontist, who can create a custom guard to fill that purpose and offer additional support.