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The importance of a mouthguard when playing sports

It was late on a Friday afternoon when Dr. Dana Coles got an emergency call from the mother of a young patient. The girl was playing field hockey and suffered a hit to the mouth so hard it completely knocked out a front tooth. What was missing from the game? A mouthguard.

It is not unusual for youngsters of any age to experience a mouth injury while playing sports, says Dr. Coles, a dentist in PEI. Often, she adds, kids are running, jumping, skating, and swinging without a mouthguard, and that puts them at a much greater risk of having a serious injury to the jaw, mouth, teeth, and gums.

A mouthguard actually acts like a cushion and can prevent broken jaws and teeth. “It protects the soft tissue around the mouth and reduces the risk of jaw fracture,” says Dr. Coles. “The mouthguard actually absorbs some of the blow.”

There are three main types of mouthguards. Stock guards come pre-formed and ready to use. While less expensive, they are usually bulkier and can making breathing and talking difficult. The two most popular types of mouthguards are those custom-fitted by a dentist and the boil-and-bite guard. The former is fitted exactly to the child’s mouth, explains Dr. Coles. “An impression, or mould, is taken of the child’s mouth and a thermoplastic guard is made from this mould.”

Although it is more expensive, one of the advantages of this type of mouthguard is comfort. “If it’s comfortable, the young athlete is more likely to wear it,” says Dr. Coles.

Boil-and-bite mouthguards, available at many sporting goods stores, are softened in warm or hot water, according to manufacturer’s instructions. By softening the mouthguard, it can more easily take to the shape of the mouth. The guard, however, tends to be bigger and thicker, Dr. Coles notes. “I hear kids say it makes it more difficult to breathe. The custom-made ones are not as bulky.” She recommends using a boil-and-bite guard as children transition from baby teeth to permanent teeth.

The use of protective guards has been demonstrated to reduce the number and severity of injuries to the mouth, and today many sports require players to wear a mouthguard. “Accidents can happen, even when you are prepared,” says Dr. Coles. “A bang to the mouth with a puck, a ball, or an elbow can chip a tooth, fracture a tooth or cause a tooth to be lost. I’ve seen hockey injuries with a puck to the mouth and suddenly six teeth are traumatized.”

More expensive than manual brushes, electric toothbrushes also have to be charged regularly and the heads will need to be replaced every few months. However, for people who have dexterity problems or those who have dental appliances, such as braces, a powered toothbrush may be easier to use. Children may also find the powered brush more fun to use and, as a result, be inclined to brush their teeth for a longer period of time.

Wearing a mouthguard, much like wearing a seatbelt, is a good habit to get into. Kids are more likely to wear their mouthguard when it is comfortable; and when it is cool. Today, custom mouthguards can be made in any colour—blue, red and neon yellow are hot at the moment. “We can even customize the colour of the mouthguard to the team’s colours; whatever will encourage the child to put in in their mouth when they are playing sports,” says Dr. Coles.

Caring For Your Mouthguard

Taking good care of your mouthguard will help it take care of your teeth longer. The Nova Scotia Dental Association recommends the following steps for mouthguard care:

  • Rinse your mouthguard under cold water after each use and air-dry the mouthguard. Occasionally clean it with mild soap and water or mouthwash.
  • Store your mouthguard in a plastic container when not in use to avoid damage due to excessive heat and cold.
  • Wear your mouthguard properly. Do not cut or alter it and do not chew on it.
  • Check your mouthguard regularly and let your dentist know if it shows any signs of wear or has any tears or cracks that may weaken it. If the bite has changed and the mouthguard no longer fits well, it can sometimes be adjusted by the dentist.

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Angela Dufour is a registered dietitian and sports dietitian at Nutrition in Action, Halifax.

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