football player

Sports and Teeth Health: Risks and Solutions

Millions of people around the world enjoy playing sports. While the health benefits of exercise are well-known, many people don’t realize that there are risks associated with sports as well. One such risk is dental injury. It is even less known that athletes also have a high risk of developing oral diseases.

High Rate of Oral Diseases Among Athletes

A 2018 study found that despite maintaining good oral care, athletes have a high rate of dental problems. The study was done by the Eastman Dental Institute of the University College London (UCL) and published in 2019 in the British Dental Journal. The research surveyed 352 professional and Olympic athletes from 11 sports. These included football, rugby, hockey, athletics, cycling, rowing, swimming, and sailing.

Among the athletes in the study, 94% brushed their teeth twice daily at the minimum, and 44% flossed regularly. They brushed their teeth 75% more frequently than the general population did and flossed 21% more frequently.

Despite having a higher level of dental care than the public, a large majority of the athletes were found to have signs of early gum inflammation in their dental checkups. In addition, almost half, or 49.1%, had tooth decay that was untreated. The state of their dental health was negatively impacting the training and performance of 32% of the athletes.

A common denominator among the athletes was that 87% of them regularly consumed sports drinks, 70% regularly took energy gels, and 59% regularly ate energy bars. According to the researchers, these products have been known to be damaging to teeth. The high sugar content causes tooth decay, and the high level of acidity causes teeth erosion.

The athletes agreed to take the advice of the researchers to improve their dental health by reducing their consumption of sugar-heavy and highly acidic products, using more fluoride to protect their teeth, and going on dental checkups more frequently.

Dental Injuries from Sports

A study published on Sports Health in May 2015 reviewed other studies done from 1960 to 2012. It showed that the dental injuries most commonly caused by sports are:

  • fractured tooth crowns,
  • tooth subluxation or its loosening when periodontal tissues are injured,
  • tooth intrusion or its displacement into the alveolar bone,
  • tooth extrusion or its displacement outward from the alveolar bone,
  • tooth avulsion or its displacement from the socket, and
  • temporomandibular joint (TMJ) dislocation.

According to the study, the use of mouth guards by athletes can help prevent, reduce, or eliminate most dental injuries in sports. If properly fitted, mouth guards do not affect ventilation and speech significantly. It was observed, however, that the use of mouth guards as dental protection has not been as widespread as participation in sports. The authors of the study recommended that athletes must be encouraged to use mouth guards when engaging in sports that have a high risk for dental injury.

Another crucial recommendation of the study is that a sports team must have adequate knowledge of managing the most common dental trauma encountered by athletes. This is necessary to be able to do what is necessary to save teeth or ensure that the athlete is brought for proper dental treatment.

Boxer with teeth exposed

Dental Solutions to Dental Injuries

It is best for sports teams to have a dentist who is taking care of the team’s dental health and who can immediately see to any dental emergency. This dental specialist can also train the team on what to do for each eventuality.

For instance, if a tooth is knocked off, it can be immediately pushed back into the tooth socket. If the tooth has fallen into dirt, it must first be rinsed using saline solution or sterile water before reinsertion. The tooth must be held only on the crown portion without touching the root. The person must then be brought to the dentist’s clinic immediately while biting down on the reinserted tooth. There is a higher chance of successful tooth replanting if the tooth is reinserted by the dentist within 15 minutes.

In some cases, it is not possible to push back the tooth into the socket. The best option is to place the tooth in a tooth-saving kit that the team must have on hand all the time. These kits are recommended by the American Dental Association (ADA). They contain a balanced salt solution (BSS) to protect and nourish a knocked-off tooth.

In the absence of a tooth-saving kit with BSS, other alternatives are to:

  • Keep the tooth in a sterile container with cold milk, preferably skim milk;
  • Keep the tooth inside the person’s mouth, tucked behind a cheek or between the gums and the lower lip, and moistened with saliva;
  • Keep the tooth in a sterile container with saline solution; or
  • Keep the tooth in a sterile container with sterile water.

If the knocked-off tooth cannot be replanted, it must be replaced as soon as possible. Otherwise, it can lead to other problems like displacement of the adjacent teeth, malocclusion, or improper chewing function. It can also cause psychological trauma to the person who lost the tooth. The most common replacements for knocked-out teeth are dental implants and bridges.

For fractured crowns, the dentist will determine if the fracture is just on the enamel or if it has reached the dentin or pulp already. A fractured tooth with only damage to the enamel can be smoothed out by the dentist. A more serious fracture that involves the dentin will require a dental filling. A fracture that reaches the pulp will need a root canal procedure.

Dental Protection for Athletes

In order to protect athletes’ teeth, sports teams must have a dentist who can take care of dental emergencies, and athletes must use mouth guards. If a tooth is knocked out, it is best to try to replant it within 15 minutes. If this cannot be done, the tooth should be replaced as soon as possible. For fractured crowns, the dentist will determine if they can be smoothed out, require a dental filling, or need a root canal procedure.

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