When you think of an athlete, you likely picture someone who is in excellent health. And while that may be true in most areas, unfortunately, athletes are at a higher risk of developing dental problems than their sedentary peers.
It is important that you discuss your workout regimen with both your dentist and your orthodontist, so they can advise you about steps to take to best protect your mouth in your unique situation.
Sports Drinks And Supplements
Because athletes often refuel with drinks, gels, and dietary supplements that are packed with acids and sugars, they are more susceptible to enamel erosion, tooth decay and gum inflammation–which can be an early warning sign of serious gum disease.
According to the American Association of Orthodontics, a 2019 study in the British Dental Journal found that 49 percent of endurance athletes had active tooth decay, and more than half had gum irritation and early indicators of disease.
The more startling fact is that the athletes studied actually reported better dental hygiene practices than most of the general population, with 94 percent brushing their teeth at least twice a day and 44 percent flossing regularly. That’s compared to just 70 percent of typical dental patients who report brushing at least twice a day and 30 percent who cite daily flossing habits.
Could sports drinks and supplements really be that bad? It turns out that the answer is yes. The acid and sugar in sports drinks and gels can accelerate erosion of the enamel that coats and protects your teeth. Once enamel is dissolved, it cannot regrow and the risk imposed upon your teeth is permanent.
The AAO approximates that athletes who routinely replenish their energy with sugary sports products have double the risk for tooth damage than people who seldom or never use them.
Unfortunately, athletes who also are undergoing orthodontic treatment are in the highest category of risk. Wearing braces makes cleaning every surface of the tooth more difficult, especially the part of the tooth surrounding brackets and wires. Therefore, the orthodontic appliances are more likely to trap sugars and acids.
For orthodontic patients, in many cases the first sign that your sports drinks are wreaking havoc on your teeth will be the appearance of decalcification marks around your brackets. These visible white spots appear when the enamel begins to dissolve due to plaque buildup. For patients wearing clear aligners, the risk actually is amplified, because the discoloration tends to distribute throughout the teeth instead of clustering around brackets.
It is important for athletes to visit the dentist at least every six months for a routine cleaning and checkup, or more often if recommended. Being under orthodontic care does not substitute for seeing your dentist regularly. Your orthodontist is focused on the work your braces are doing, and she will not be checking for cavities or cleaning your teeth.
Athletes know that staying hydrated is a key component of achieving peak performance. If you decide to cut back on sports drinks in order to better look out for your dental health, you still have to make sure that you are staying hydrated–for your dental health as well as your physical performance.
When you are dehydrated, your glands produce an insufficient amount of saliva, which is needed to maintain oral health. Saliva offers a protective coating for the enamel, and it contains minerals and calcium that can help repair it before it breaks down. Additionally, saliva helps eliminate food particles and bacteria that lead to cavities and soft tissue infections.
Tips For Keeping Your Mouth Healthy
The task of keeping yourself hydrated while avoiding products that are bad for the teeth may seem like a tall order. Fortunately, there are some tips you can consider that could help keep your mouth and body healthy.
- Minimize the amount of sugars and acids you consume by opting for water during workouts that are one hour or less.
- When you need carbohydrates or electrolytes, choose either sports drinks or food supplements–don’t combine them.
- When consuming sports drinks, minimize the amount of contact the liquid has with your teeth. Don’t swish the sports drink around in your mouth, and use a straw if possible.
- Rinse your mouth with water after consuming sports drinks or supplements, and if possible, swish with water in between each sip or bite.
- Brush your teeth after consuming high sugar or acid foods and drinks, but wait about one hour to allow the tooth surfaces to re-harden.
- Eat foods rich in calcium and phosphates to help remineralize the surfaces of the teeth.
- Use oral rinses with fluoride, which can help mitigate damage to your teeth.
- Brush your teeth with high-fluoride toothpaste. The typical toothpaste contains about 1,100 to 1,450 parts per million (ppm) fluoride. Your dentist can prescribe a paste containing 2,800 to 5,000 ppm.
- Do not rinse your mouth for at least 30 minutes after using a high-fluoride toothpaste.
- Make sure you are brushing your teeth correctly, scrubbing the fronts, backs and tops of your teeth, brushing at the gumline, and brushing for at least two minutes.
- Use a dental brush or a water pick to enhance flossing.
If you play a contact sport, then obviously you are susceptible to injury. Every athlete playing a contact sport should wear a mouthguard to avoid injury to the teeth, lips, and gums. Additionally, mouthguards provide shock absorption, which minimizes trauma to the jaw and neck in the event of significant impact.
A number of mouthguards exist on the market today. They range from generic pre-formed varieties to specialist-molded and fitted varieties.
Some mouthguards are available ready-to-use right off shelves in supermarkets and pharmacies. They are the least expensive and require no preparation, but they can be bulky and uncomfortable for some people.
Other mouthguards that you can find over-the-counter include boil-and-bite varieties, which are made of a thermoplastic that is heat activated. Once this type of mouthguard is softened (usually in hot water), you can customize its fit by placing the guard tray over your teeth and applying pressure. It is also a fairly inexpensive option and readily available at most sporting goods stores. Some over-the-counter brands even are specifically designed to fit over braces.
Your dentist also can custom create a professional mouthguard specifically crafted for your teeth. These are typically the most comfortable and usually offer the best protection. However, these mouthguards can be costly, and with readjustments being a regular feature of braces, you might need to visit the dentist frequently for redesigns.
Before deciding on what kind of mouthguard to use, make sure to check out the regulations pertaining to your sport. In some cases, a team’s insurance will only cover injuries sustained if the player is wearing a dentist-created mouthguard. Also, some sports–such as wrestling– require a mouthguard on both the top and bottom teeth.
Participating in sports is a rewarding and physically demanding experience. Luckily, athletes don’t have to choose between the sports they love and a confident smile. With a few minor training adjustments, athletes can maintain healthy oral hygiene while wearing braces.