Whether you or your child play football, run track, or swim, you’re intimately familiar with the threats sports pose to the body. But while you worry about broken bones and pulled muscles, you have another set of injuries to pay attention to: the dental kind.
During the 2012 Olympic Games, Paul Piccininni, the International Olympic Committee’s dental director, talked about athletes’ dental health. He told the Associated Press, “They have bodies of Adonis and a garbage mouth.” Although Piccininni was referring specifically to Olympic athletes, all athletes have a greater chance of developing gum disease and tooth decay.
Are Sports Actually Bad For Your Teeth?
Few people talk about the link between sports and dental health. But the reality is, bleeding gums, toothaches, and other dental conditions plagued 20% of the athletes who competed at the London Olympics in 2012. What’s more, sports analysts think the pain associated with these ailments cost some athletes a spot on the medal stand.
So how do sports cause problems for your teeth? What risks do they pose to athletes’ oral health?
Dehydration Leads to Dry Mouth
As you know, athletes sweat a lot. And when they sweat, their bodies produce less saliva. Less saliva is detrimental to dental health for several reasons. First, saliva represents your mouth’s first line of defense against tooth decay, as it helps sweep food and bacteria from your teeth. Second, it aids in the regeneration of tooth enamel. On top of that, a lack of saliva leads to dry mouth, which often causes thrush and gingivitis.
Sports Drink Contribute to Dental Decay
Athletes often rely on sports drinks to replenish the electrolytes they use during practice or competition. While sports drinks contain many essential nutrients, they also contain a lot of sugar.
Sugar is your teeth’s worst enemy because any time it you drink it, the bacteria in your mouth produce harmful acids. These acids attack tooth enamel, softening it and causing cavities over time.
Stress Causes Teeth Clenching
Whether it’s tennis, gymnastics, or basketball, sports require a lot of concentration. As athletes exert physical and mental efforts, most of them clench their teeth at some point. Teeth clenching not only grinds teeth down, but it also causes jaw soreness and persistent headaches.
Frequent Meals Weaken Tooth Enamel
Some sports, such as wrestling and football, require athletes to eat frequent meals to keep their bodies competition-ready. This is dangerous because it prolongs the amount of time your teeth are exposed to decay-causing acids.
How Can Athletes Protect Their Teeth?
Fortunately, you don’t need to give up sports just because they pose a threat to your teeth and gums. You just need to take a few extra steps to maintain your oral health.
On the Field
- Stay away from sports drinks. Saliva consists of 95% water—not 95% sports drinks. The more you rely on water to fuel your workouts, the less you’ll have to worry about tooth decay.
- Wear a mouth guard. Sugary drinks and dehydration both contribute to enamel softening. The softer your tooth enamel, the more likely your teeth will crack or break during sports. To build a buffer around your teeth, wear a mouth guard any time you play contact sports.
- Invest in extra face protection. Face cages and helmets provide that much more protection to your jawbone and teeth. Wear them even if you just play a pickup game of football with your friends.
Off the Field
- Hydrate. Because your body produces less saliva when you sweat, you need to drink lots of water when you practice or compete. Although the amount of water you need depends on your body composition and sport, a good rule of thumb is to drink 7-10 oz. every 30 minutes while you train.
- Eat right. You know your body needs protein, fruits, and vegetables to perform, but did you know the same foods also benefit your teeth? Lean meats contain omega-3 fatty acids, which help prevent gum disease. Fruits and vegetables act as detergents for your mouth, scrubbing bacteria and acid from your teeth.
- Brush and floss. Although this tip sounds simple, it is vital to your oral health. Because athletes lead busy lives, many forget to brush and floss, while others skip them altogether. Always brush and floss your teeth twice a day. If you drink sports drinks, you should also rinse with mouthwash twice daily.
- Schedule regular dental cleanings. Cleanings help prevent the acid in sports drinks from destroying your tooth enamel. Furthermore, they also dentists to monitor your teeth for potential problems. Dental cleanings are especially important for swimmers, as they are at an increased risk of developing brown spots on their teeth, a condition known as swimmers’ calculus.
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, especially when it comes to sports and dental injuries. Remember these tips to keep your teeth in great shape, and don’t forget to read our other blogs for more information on protecting your teeth on and off the field.