By the time Muhammed Ali knocked out George Foreman in possibly the greatest sporting event of the 20th century, boxers had been wearing mouth guards for 50 years. Sports with the most contact first claimed the mouth guard, but time and experience has shown that orofacial injuries to the mouth, jaw and face can happen in all sports. While these injuries are the most common type in sports, few athletes in non-contact activities wear mouth guards and because of this, many fail to prevent an injury that can cause lifelong implications.
The Spectrum of Orofacial Injuries
Typically, we view mouth guards as a tool to prevent injuries to the teeth or lips, but they help to protect from injuries to the jaw or skull as well. Mouth guards also help reduce the risk of concussions. Athletes are nearly twice as likely to suffer from injuries to the mouth and jaw if a mouth guard is not used or if it’s not used properly.
Mouth guards work by separating the soft tissues in the mouth from the teeth, which prevents lacerations and bruising. They help dissipate and distribute the impact of frontal blows, preventing tooth fractures and dislocations and reducing the impact to the brain. They also prevent damage that can result from upper teeth slamming into lower teeth.
Mouth Guards on the Market
There are two options to choose from when you’re in the market for mouth guards. You can either buy a ready-made mouth guard from the store or you can visit your dentist to have one custom made. In both cases, there are several options to choose from.
Store-Bought Mouth Guards
At any sporting goods store, you can find both stock mouth guards and mouth-formed mouth guards. Stock mouth guards are the least preferred, but they are the lowest-cost option. The sizes are limited to small, medium and large in spite of the fact that mouth size and shape varies significantly. They are often bulky, don’t fit well and are held in place by clenching the teeth. Since this makes speaking and breathing difficult, you might end up losing the mouth guard in action if your sport requires communication with others. They are also less protective. With all that said, a bad mouth guard is better than no mouth guard at all.
It’s more likely that when you’re shopping you’ll find a boil-and-bite mouth guard. These are the most common mouth guards used by athletes and they vary in protection, retention, comfort and cost. You can get closer to a custom fit with these by heating them in boiling water, cooling them a bit, and then putting them in your mouth to mold with your fingers, tongue, and teeth. The problem is that these mouth guards distort with wear, often lack the needed three or more millimeters of thickness for protection, and don’t extend far enough to distribute frontal blows and protect the brain from impact.
Custom-Made Mouth Guards
The safest and most surefire route is a custom mouth guard made by a dentist. While this is the most expensive option, it’s also the most comfortable. Research shows that custom-fit mouth guards are more effective at absorbing the force of impact than store-bought mouth guards. Your dentist can also make sure you have the most appropriate design for the sport you play and can properly address a history of dental injury or concussion.
Many athletes go without wearing a mouth guard if their sport doesn’t demand it. Yet those in non-contact sports are often the ones who most need something to protect their teeth. Dentists have even found that the sports with the highest incidence of oral injuries are baseball and biking, two “non-contact” sports.
Athletes also complain that mouth guards are bulky or uncomfortable, which may be the case with a stock or boil-and-bite mouth guard. If that’s been your experience, consider having one custom made. But if you don’t want to shell out the cash, any mouth guard will do. After all, the best mouth guard is the one you use.