The start of Australia’s footy and rugby season strikes fear in me that I don’t feel the rest of the year. As a fan, I find the games entertaining. But as a dentist, I worry about the thousands of teeth that will be chipped or knocked out during a training session or on game day.
According to the Australian Dental Association NSW, 40% of dental injuries are sports-related. What’s perhaps even more shocking is that only 36% of Aussies who play contact sports wear a mouthguard on game day.
While some accidents are unavoidable, there’s one major step you can take as a sports player: Wear a sports mouthguard. (Or, If you have children who play sports, make them wear one.)
Whether you’re looking to buy your first mouthguard, or just checking your mouthguard knowledge, by reading this guide you’ll find out:
- what a mouthguard is
- the different types of mouthguards you can buy
- who should have a mouthguard in their kit bag
- the potential risks of not wearing a mouthguard
- how to fit and care for your mouthguard
- a dentist’s dream for mouthguards in the future.
Let’s start by learning what a mouthguard is and how it can help prevent dental trauma.
40% of dental injuries are sports-related. And only 36% of Aussies who play a contact sport wear a mouthguard on game day.
Source: ADA NSW
What is a mouthguard?
Mouthguards may be small, but they do a mighty job. When worn over the top teeth, a well-designed mouthguard will absorb some of the impact you encounter when playing sports. It reduces the chance of your upper and lower teeth clattering together and minimises the risk of you biting your cheeks or tongue, and splitting your lips.
What wearing a mouthguard feels like will depend on the quality of the piece and the material it’s made of. Mass-produced, budget-friendly, store-bought mouthguards are generally made from PVC (polyvinyl chloride). (Interestingly, PVC mouthguards have been banned in the EU.) But sports mouthguards are more commonly made from EVA (ethylene-vinyl acetate), which has a more flexible, rubbery texture.
The different types of mouthguards
There are different mouthguards for different purposes. A dentist may suggest you wear a mouthguard if you grind your teeth (known as bruxism) or as a treatment for sleep apnoea, as well as if you’re playing sport.
The difference between a sports mouthguard and one designed to help with a medical condition is that sports mouthguards are made out of a different material and are generally thicker. Whatever the sport—boxing, hockey, netball— guards that are 3-4mm thick should offer good protection.
As well as having different purposes, mouthguards have different styles.
Designed specifically for your mouth, custom mouthguards offer the greatest protection. These are made from an impression of your mouth, which delivers a better fit around your teeth and soft tissue.
While you can see your dentist to get the moulds made, you don’t need to. Some sports companies and dedicated mouthguard manufacturers (e.g. Sportsafe Australia) specialise in custom mouthguards. As part of their process, they’ll take impressions of your mouth and teeth and make the moulds. This may be more cost-effective than seeing your dentist, especially if making sports mouthguards isn’t a service they offer.
Boil and bite
Available at sports stores and some chemists, boil and bite mouthguards work by being placed in boiling water. When they’re soft (but cool enough to put in the mouth), the wearer bites down on the guard to create an impression. While this customises them to some extent, you probably won’t get a full impression of your mouth, which means not all of your teeth and gums will be properly protected.
The most basic of mouthguards, these are a one-size-fits-most deal. Because the guard doesn’t fit the shape of your mouth, store-bought guards may be uncomfortable to wear for long periods. They’re also more likely to fall out. Of all the mouthguard styles, these offer the least amount of protection and should be used only as a last resort.
Chances are the type of mouthguard you choose will be influenced by:
- your budget,
- how often you play sport
- the type of sport you play.
But if you want to be completely sure your teeth and mouth are properly protected, investing in a custom mouthguard is the best option.
Who should wear a sports mouthguard?
Footy players have already been mentioned. And anyone—adult or child—who plays contact sports is also an obvious candidate. But AFL, NRL and boxing aren’t the only sports where everyone should be wearing a mouthguard.
Anyone playing a sport where there’s a risk of colliding, falling or being hit in the mouth should wear a mouthguard. So this extends to sports such as:
- martial arts
- cricket (when batting or fielding in close).
Some of the sports on our list might surprise you. Or you may think we’re being overly cautious. But taking a ball to the mouth or hitting the deck can result in injuries that cost a lot more than buying a mouthguard and wearing it for a few hours.
The risks of not wearing a mouthguard
I don’t want to get super gruesome, so I’ll spare you the sport-related dental trauma we’ve treated at Keppel Dental. But the reality is that not wearing a sports mouthguard increases the risk of copping a nasty injury that can take weeks (or even months) to recover from. And depending on your injuries, it may take your bank balance just as long to recover.
Training or playing without a mouthguard can lead to:
- biting your cheeks or tongue (which can result in needing stitches)
- a chipped tooth or teeth, which you may need dental restoration treatment to fix
- knocking out a tooth or multiple teeth, which could have you investing in a dental implant if the tooth can’t be saved
- a broken jaw, which may involve one or more operations to help reset, repair and heal the jaw.
Injuries that require hospital or dental care can cost you more than the season. Your treatment may cost thousands of dollars. And depending on the injury and what’s needed to repair it, it could take a lifetime to treat.
Mouthguards and concussion
You may have heard that mouthguards can also help protect against concussion. The theory is a properly fitted mouthguard absorbs enough of the impact to reduce the risk of concussion symptoms such as dizziness. But this idea is being widely abandoned by sport medical professionals.
A small study by the University of North Carolina assessed 180 concussed athletes by looking at their cognitive function from their concussion test. The athletes were separated into two groups: those who were wearing a mouthguard when they were concussed, and those who weren’t. The conclusion was that ‘mouthguard use does not result in any observable differences in neurocognitive performance following concussion.’
So while we highly recommend wearing a mouthguard to protect against dental and mouth trauma, if you think it will reduce the potential impact of concussion you’re going to be disappointed. Mouthguards can protect you from a lot of inner-mouth damage. But they can’t protect you from a knock to the head.
Mouthguard fitting tips
The easiest way to get a mouthguard that fits properly is to get one custom-made. A guard created from an impression of your mouth will offer protection from your front teeth all the way to your molars, as well as around your gums.
In Australia you might pay anything between $200 and $400 for a custom sports mouthguard, depending on the size of your mouth and any design work you have done on it. (You may see footy players with fanged teeth designs, team colours, or their name.)
You’ll know your mouthguard is fitting right if:
- it’s comfortable to wear, even for long periods
- it doesn’t feel loose, or fall out easily when you make impact
- you can breathe, swallow and talk normally.
A good quality mouthguard should also be odourless, and not leave a plastic taste in your mouth.
Looking after your mouthguard
An adult mouthguard that’s well-looked after can last several seasons. I say ‘adult’ because children’s mouthguards should be replaced each year. Kids’ bodies are always changing, including their mouth and jaw. They may also still be losing their milk teeth, and have adult teeth only partially through.
To keep your mouthguard working as it should, and to stop it becoming a hygiene risk or added stink in your kit bag, you should:
- wash it in warm (not hot) soapy water after every game and training session
- allow it to air dry rather than trying to dry it with a towel (to avoid the risk of it getting covered in lint)
- avoid leaving it in direct sunlight or exposing it to high temperatures so it doesn’t go brittle or change shape so much that it no longer fits
- keep it in a well-ventilated storage box to protect it from damage (and getting hot and potentially sweating).
3D printing mouthguards: the dream result
A common misconception is you can only get a custom sports mouthguard by seeing your dentist. Many dentists do offer this service. But it will often cost more than it would if you order one through a specialist mouthguard manufacturer.
Currently, making a custom mouthguard involves using sticky, gooey putty to take an impression of your mouth. It’s then sent to a dental technician, who uses it to make a mould of your mouth. And once they have the mould, the mouthguard can be made to fit.
In an ideal world, we’d use digital dentistry techniques instead of putty. Having a 3D scan of your mouth taken is much more comfortable. And it’s a lot quicker than taking impressions of the mouth, making the model, and sending it off to have the mouthguard created.
What would be even better is if we could use a 3D printer to print high-quality, custom sports mouthguards. Again, this would save time and lower the cost.
At the moment, EVA is still the best material for mouthguard manufacturing. Unfortunately, it’s not commonly used for 3D printing, so it’s hard to get hold of it in a form that would work with a 3D printer.
So until the situation changes, or we find an alternative material that’s just as good as EVA but works with 3D printers, it will remain a nerdy dentist’s dream.
Want to discuss your need for a sports mouthguard with a dentist?
Getting a sports mouthguard is a wise investment. But finding one that fits your needs isn’t always easy if you have braces, crowns or a bridge. You may also be worried about the effect a mouthguard will have on your teeth.
If this sounds like you, then it might be worth getting some advice from a dentist.
Keppel Dental can help any sports-mad people in the Yeppoon and Rockhampton area. We can take impressions for child and adult mouthguards, and help you get a custom guard. Get in touch with us today, and we can go from there.
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