What are mouth guards?
Sports mouth guards – also called mouth protectors, sports guards, or athletic mouth guards – are devices used to protect the teeth, gums, and soft tissue of the mouth from sports-related injuries. The American Dental Association recommends people of all ages use a protective mouth guard if they are participating in contact sports or other activities that could cause a risk of injury to the mouth or teeth.
According to the ADA Council of Scientific Affairs and the Council on Advocacy for Access and Prevention, an ideal mouth guard should be:
- properly fitted to the wearer’s mouth, and adapted to individual oral structures
- made of resilient material approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and cover all teeth on the maxillary arch (upper jaw)
- able to stay in place comfortably and securely
- physiologically compatible with the wearer
- easy to clean
- a high-impact energy absorber to reduce or limit forces upon impact
What are the different types of mouth guards?
There are three types of mouth guards that vary in cost, adaptability, comfort, level of contact with teeth, and safety:
- Stock mouth guards are a one-shape-fits-all device. They are the cheapest option but don’t offer a comfortable fit or a high level of protection. Stock mouth guards require the mouth to be closed to remain in place and require frequent repositioning during sporting activities.
- Boil-and-bite mouth guards area good middle-ground between stock mouth guards and custom-made in terms of cost and function. They are named after the process to mold them.
Boil-and-bite mouth guards soften when placed in hot water and are then adapted to the wearer’s mouth through bite pressure (impression of your teeth) and manipulation by the fingers and tongue. Dentists may assist with the final molding, but they can be purchased at many retail establishments and sporting goods stores.
- Custom-fitted mouth guards offer the best protection and can be fully customized, providing athletes with an optimal fit, adaptability, and safety. But they are the most expensive option and require dental visits for fitting and customization.
According to the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry (AAPD), custom mouth guards are the most protective and comfortable option. They reduce the possibility of serious injury and increase the likelihood that the player will regularly use the device due to the secure fit and comfort.
But other mouth guards can be effective if properly made and consistently worn.
What is the importance of mouth guards?
Numerous studies show that mouth guards can help prevent:
- serious dental injuries, like broken and knocked-out teeth
- jaw injuries
- serious injury to the soft tissue of the lips, tongue, and cheeks
According to the American Dental Association (ADA), the risk of damage to the mouth during sports activity is reduced 60 times by using mouth guards. And more than 200,000 sports-related oral injuries are prevented annually in the United States. Currently, the ADA requires the use of mouth guards for participation in:
- ice hockey
- field hockey
A mouth guard is a small, basic piece of equipment that’s ready to wear. It’s essential safety wear for anyone participating in organized or recreational sports.
Whether it’s a contact, limited contact, or non-contact sport – such as softball, basketball, volleyball, martial arts, mountain biking, or gymnastics – dental professionals recommend protective mouth wear whenever there is a risk of injury.
Boxing is the only professional sport for which mouthguards are mandated. United States military personnel are also required to wear mouthguards during various military training activities.
A 2019 review of the scientific literature concluded that, when compared with mouth guard users, individuals who did not use mouth guards had more than twice the increased risk of orofacial injury. This is consistent with numerous studies that have shown reductions in orofacial injuries with the use of mouth guards.
The National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) and the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) mandate the use of mouth guards in football, field hockey, ice hockey, and lacrosse.
Do mouth guards prevent concussions?
Studies have found that the evidence for concussion reduction is inconsistent. But researchers have continued to investigate whether wearing a mouth guard offers protection against concussions in sporting activities.
A review of the scientific literature shows mouth guard use has a modest influence on concussion incidence. Athletes who don’t wear a mouth guard have a 25% higher risk of sustaining a concussion than mouth guard users. Other recent studies have reported that wearing a mouth guard was associated with decreased incidence of concussions among ice hockey players.
Can mouth guards damage teeth?
Bacteria and other microorganisms flourish in dark, moist environments like your mouth. While many of the bacteria in the mouth are beneficial for digestion, others can contribute to tooth decay, gum disease, or other medical conditions. Unless properly cared for, a mouth guard can become a breeding ground for bacteria that can make you sick.
Bacteria can also be picked up on the mouth guard in places outside the mouth. Do you store the mouth guard in a case, or does it just get tossed in a gym bag with a uniform and gear? Does it always stay in your mouth? Or does it occasionally fall out, only to be shoved back in your mouth during a game?
Without proper care, your mouth guard may be introducing bacteria, viruses, and even mold.
When your mouth guard becomes a breeding ground for bacteria, it can cause gum disease (gingivitis) or more advanced periodontal disease. When left unchecked, gum disease can advance beyond inflammation of the gums and have a significant effect on the teeth and jawbone.
It can also contribute to a variety of other health concerns, including:
…the risk of damage to the mouth during sports activity is reduced 60 times by using mouth guards.
8 ways to reduce the risk of periodontal disease
There are multiple ways to reduce the risk of periodontal disease when using a mouth guard:
1. Good oral hygiene
Regular brushing and flossing help remove food particles, plaque, and tartar that contribute to bacterial growth. Always brush your teeth before placing the mouth guard in your mouth.
2. Do NOT share a mouth guard
While it is common for teammates to share equipment, keep your mouth guard to yourself. Letting another teammate use it can potentially spread bacteria.
3. Always use a case with vents
Always store the mouthguard in a case with air vents. A solid case can contribute to mold growth.
4. Use a custom-fitted mouth guard
Because the fit is more secure, chances are the mouth guard will stay in your mouth during practice or a game. Loose mouth guards can fall out, picking up new bacteria from the ground.
5. Sanitize and soak your mouth guard
After cleaning, it is a good idea to sanitize and soak your guard before storage. Different types of solutions can be used, including hydrogen peroxide and vinegar, and baking soda.
6. Have a backup guard
If your mouth guard falls out and onto the ground, you don’t want to place it back in your mouth. Having a backup guard allows you to switch from a dirty mouth guard to a fresh one.
7. Replace damaged guards
Over time, your mouth guard will show signs of wear and tear. Cracks and tears provide hiding places for bacteria. That’s why it’s important to replace your mouth guard every six months or when it starts to look worn.
8. Avoid biting or chewing on the guard
You may have seen professional athletes chewing on their mouth guards; regular chewing can tear or damage the mouth guard leading to hiding places for bacteria to grow.
Steph Curry, a point guard for the Golden State Warriors, chews his mouth guard to release nervous energy during the game. “I chew on it like crazy. It calms me down,” Curry explained. “Especially at the free-throw line, so I can kinda get my rhythm.”
So, unless you’re able to replace a custom-fitted mouth guard every few games like Steph Curry, find another way to release game stress.
How do I clean a mouth guard?
Get in the habit of cleaning your mouth guard before and after every game and practice. If it is not cleaned regularly, bacteria can build up and then transfer from the guard to your mouth.
Do this by gently brushing the mouth guard with a wet toothbrush and non-abrasive toothpaste. Then, store it in a ventilated container.
Can I wear a mouth guard with braces?
A properly fitted mouth guard is especially important for people who wear braces or have fixed bridge work. A blow to the face could damage the brackets or other fixed orthodontic appliances. A mouth guard provides a barrier between the braces and your cheek or lips, which will help you avoid injuries to your soft tissues.
Although some mouth guards only cover the upper teeth, your orthodontist may suggest that you use a mouth guard on the lower teeth with braces.
Ultimately, the most effective sports mouth guard is one you will wear. Talk to your dental professionals about selecting a mouth guard that will provide the right protection. Protect your perfect smile and wear a mouth guard!
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