Take a bite out of dental injuries with a mouth guard

Mouth guards are a piece of equipment young athletes should be wearing

Kids love playing sports, but rough-and-tumble activities can mean trouble for teeth.

As teams enthusiastically vie for the ball or yardage, elbows, knees and heads can crash into teeth and jaws. Even individual sports are risky as unexpected contact with sporting equipment, the ground or some other unforgiving surface can wreak havoc on unprotected mouths.

However, mouth guards are an easy and relatively inexpensive way to ensure your child’s smile and dental health are protected.

According to Dr. Paul Harvey, Jr. of Harvey Dental in Portsmouth, anyone involved in sports should wear a mouth guard.

“The age group at highest risk is those children between the ages of eight and 18,” he said.

“We see the most dental injuries with kids in this age range. Younger children may not be playing sports at a high level or with a great deal of contact, but they can be vulnerable to injury because they are learning and are not as coordinated. They also have teeth that are in transition from baby teeth to permanent, so these teeth are not as deeply rooted. With 13- to 18-year-olds, you see the frequency of injuries go down a bit, but the severity of injuries can be more significant, as this age group is bigger, stronger and playing sports at a more intense level.”

The need for a mouth guard can be determined somewhat by what type of sport your child plays. Sports are placed in three categories by the medical community:

1) Non-contact, low velocity: swimming, cross-country skiing, curling and running

2) Non-contact high-velocity: skateboarding, downhill skiing, horseback riding or racing, and cycling

3) Contact: basketball, soccer, hockey, football, field hockey, lacrosse

“Contact and non-contact high-velocity sports are definitely activities that warrant a mouth guard,” said Dr. Harvey. “It’s not just player-to-player contact that can cause injury, but flying balls, sticks, the ground or the ice – any of these can do harm.”

Dr. Robert Chaikin, owner of Belknap Dental in Dover, echoes Dr. Harvey’s recommendations and takes them a step further.

“We even recommend mouth guards for adults who are in contact or high-velocity sports. It is much easier to prevent dental injuries than to have reconstructive work done.”

There are three types of mouth guards: Stock mouth guards, which are generic and purchased off the shelf at sporting goods stores; the “boil and bite” type, which are also available over the counter and provide a slightly more customized fit; and custom mouth guards, which are fitted at a dental practice.

Neither Dr. Harvey nor Dr. Chaikin recommend the stock mouth guards, which can fit poorly and cause irritation or fall out too easily. However, Dr. Harvey said the boil and bite may be acceptable for younger players whose mouths are still changing.

“As long as the fit is comfortable and the mouth guard stays in, a boil-and-bite guard will provide good protection,” he said. “And, it can be a less expensive option for those early years when a child’s mouth is still evolving. You can then graduate to a custom guard when the child is older.”

Dr. Chaikin said parents may want to consider a custom mouth guard, even with a younger child, if the other types are not fitting comfortably or if the child has braces.

“An ill-fitting mouth guard is not only uncomfortable and not fully doing its job, it can also cause irritation to dental tissues. We can create mouth guards that fit comfortably over braces – that are soft on the inside and hard on the outside. Even if the child’s mouth is in transition, with some baby teeth and some emerging permanent teeth, we can continue to adjust that mouth guard as the child’s mouth changes.”

How can you tell if a mouth guard is fitting well? “The child should be able to breathe and speak with the mouth guard in,” said Dr. Chaikin. “The mouth guard should not feel loose or irritating. I suggest that parents check their child’s mouths for signs of irritation. The mouth guard should also not create tightening or cramping in the jaw. If any of these signs are there, it’s time for a new guard.”

Whatever type of mouth guard you purchase, keeping them clean is important, and something parents should monitor.

“We see mouth guards being stuffed in gym bags, backpacks, sitting on benches and being played with during downtimes,” said Dr. Harvey. “They do not lead a sanitary life! Wash them in hot water after wearing and let them dry or you can also rinse with hot water and brush with some toothpaste.”

“If parents are really concerned about germs, they can also clean them with warm water and a little diluted unscented household bleach – sodium hydrochloride – then rinse well,” adds Dr. Chaikin. “This will also get rid of any odor if your mouth guard develops one.”

If your child complains about wearing a mouth guard, both dentists advise reminding them that mouth guards do a great job at preventing broken and cracked teeth, and that is something to smile about.   

Crystal Ward Kent is a regional writer whose work appears in numerous magazines. She is the owner of Kent Creative in Dover and the author of several books.

Categories: Dental & Oral Health