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15 May 2024

Mouthguards Protect Your Mouth—and Potentially Your Brain—from Sports-Related Injuries

Matthew Mauck, DDS ’11, says it’s funny that he’s a dentist. Back when he played professional football, he thought wearing a mouthguard was annoying. Now the former NFL and MLB player spends his days encouraging athletes of all ages to protect their heads and faces by wearing a mouthguard.

Together with Andrew Ricci, DDS, Mauck offers patients a first line of defense in traumatic dental injury. The alumni of the University of Colorado School of Dental Medicine (CU SDM) have a private practice in Aurora, Colorado. They serve on the sidelines as the official dentists of the Denver Broncos and provide custom mouthguards to athletes in Cherry Creek schools.

Mouthguards, while “annoying,” are an easy sell for most parents and programs. Yet getting kids to wear them is rarely a perfect practice.

“It's hard enough getting kids to remember a water bottle, let alone a mouthguard,” Mauck said. “Plus they are easy to lose and replacing them five or so times a year can get expensive."

But the importance of wearing a mouthguard can't be understated. It’s rare for athletes to experience dental trauma while wearing a mouthguard.

“It’s well-documented that mouthguards are highly effective for preventing tooth and bone injury,” Ricci said. 

Starting Kids Young

Mauck said kids as young as six should wear mouthguards while playing contact sports, for protection and to build the habit.

“A lot of times, we see kids who won’t wear them because they aren’t used to them. If you start young and they get used to it, they’ll be more likely to wear one," Mauck said.

Their practice offers free custom mouthguards for their patients. But Mauck cautions that getting the right fit for young kids can be a challenge.

“When they’re younger, their mouths are constantly changing. They’re losing teeth and getting new teeth in, so it's hard to get a custom fit mouthguard for them. So parents might start by going to the sporting goods store and getting the ‘boil and bite’ guards. The only issue with those is that they don’t fit as well, and that’s when kids might start feeling like they can’t breathe as well.”

But the temporary discomfort of wearing a mouthguard is worth it. Especially if you consider the physical and emotional pain of a baseball to the face.

Mauck has a patient who, after getting hit in the face when he was 10, always wore a mouthguard. Until one day when he was 15, he got put in the outfield and decided he wouldn't need it for that inning.

"Well, the second baseman got hurt. So he got called in. On the throw down from the catcher between innings, the sun hit just right. The ball bounced and knocked his tooth out, again."

Preventing Long-Term Problems

When a kid loses a permanent tooth, the injury isn't just painful. It's also something they have to deal with for the rest of their childhood and into adulthood. Dentists can’t offer these kids a permanent solution until they've stopped growing, usually around age 22 or 23.

“Ultimately, kids who lose permanent teeth end up having long-term problems that a mouthguard may have prevented,” said Ricci.

Ricci encourages parents to take seriously any mouth injury a child receives. Even a small bump to a permanent tooth can cause damage to the nerve.

“Down the line, maybe months or even years later, they might come see us because of a tooth that's discolored,” said Ricci. “When we see a tooth that has no other signs and symptoms of cavities or fractures, we ask if they had trauma to the area. More often than not, they did.”

Should your child experience an injury, call your dentist as soon as possible.

“If we can get them in within less than an hour from the injury, we can usually save the tooth with more than 50 percent stability,” Ricci said.

Avoiding Concussions

Ricci is a 2015 graduate of the CU SDM General Practice Residency program and a current part-time clinical instructor in the Department of Surgical Dentistry. He makes a point to stay informed of all research about wearing mouthguards.

While the data indicates mouthguards prevent mouth injury, the concussion research is mixed.

Ricci said there does seem to be a positive correlation between wearing a mouthguard and reduced concussions. But some studies fail to show a statistically significant benefit to wearing a mouthguard as it relates to concussion.

However, the NFL is currently funding research that places pressure sensors in mouthguards with the aim of understanding the force players are absorbing through their mouths. 

"We know that if you get hit from underneath your jaw, you can transmit all of that force through your teeth into the base of your skull. Which can push your brain up, hit the skull, and cause a concussion,” he said.

Mouthguards Work at Every Level

Ricci believes that protecting your teeth from chipping or breaking is enough reason to wear a mouthguard. But the potential of protecting against long-term health conditions and concussion makes mouthguards a no-brainer.

“You're adding as much protection for your child as possible. As a parent, it's what you ultimately want.”

Ricci believes adults need mouthguards too. He spent a summer in a recreational softball league made up of mostly dentists. One night, a fellow player lost the ball in the lights. Thankfully, they had a full team of dental trauma professionals in the field.

“The game might be slower as we age,” Ricci said. “But believe me, you can still get injured.” 

Author: Carie Behounek 

Source: https://news.cuanschutz.edu/

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