Guide to Dental Sports Injuries

According to recent research, dental injuries make up around 40% of the total number of sporting injuries that occur each year. It just goes to show how vulnerable our teeth can be, especially the front teeth. The added problem is that our vulnerable front teeth are also our most visible: so a lost tooth here can not only be painful, it can also be really damaging to our self-confidence and self-esteem.

Of course, the majority of sports involve some risk of injury. Whether it is a muscle strain caused by gymnastics or a broken limb caused by ski-jumping, there is usually a chance that you can injure yourself, whatever the sport you do. So why should we treat dental sports injuries as special cases? Surely people who play sports should accept the consequences?

The fact is that our teeth do not grow back. So when you lose a tooth due to a sporting injury, it is not quite the same as other injuries which heal over a period of time. While a missing tooth may only feel like a minor injury, it can mean that, in the longer term, you feel self-conscious about smiling, talking and eating in social situations.

The subtext here is that the aesthetic part of your smile is also not the only aspect of the damage that a missing tooth can cause. A missing tooth puts extra, unusual pressure on the remaining teeth and on your jaw, which can lead to a whole variety of aches and ailments, from grinding your teeth at night to having aches in the neck, shoulders and back. Imagine how that can affect your sporting career.

What kind of injury constitutes a dental emergency?

When the adrenaline is pumping, it is often easy to ignore a kick in the face and get back out on the field of play. However, dental injuries should be given due care and consideration as they can often benefit from immediate treatment. In fact, how quickly you gain treatment can often mean the difference between whether you lose a tooth or save one.

In the majority of cases, sporting dental emergencies that require immediate treatment fall into four categories. The first is having a tooth knocked out (or ‘extruded’ to use the proper term). The second is having a tooth dislodged, so that it is either hanging loosely (but still attached) or driven deeper into the gum and jaw, which can cause damage to the root and the surrounding teeth. The third is when your tooth remains in place but is badly chipped, broken, split or fractured. Finally, some dental sporting injuries include cuts to the inside of the mouth, tongue or lips, or damage to the jaw bone.

All of these types of injuries should demand immediate treatment by a dentist, usually within 60 minutes of the injury occurring. However, one of the major issues surrounding dental sports injuries is that they are part of a broader list of injuries. For example, an impact blow to the face during a game of rugby may dislodge a tooth. That dislodged tooth may be the least of your worries, though, as you have also have sustained damage to your cheek and face.

Of course, the damage to your cheek and face may be superficial but also more noticeable. So while you have your wounds patched up on the pitch by a well-meaning coach, you should really be on your way to the emergency dentist to have your tooth fixed first.

What treatment can be given on the field of play?

There is a strong blood supply to the face and mouth. Which means, in turn, that cuts and scrapes can produce quite a lot of blood. Therefore, the first job on the field of play is to ascertain exactly how bad the injuries are and where the dental damage stands in the list of priorities.

It is important that, if you have suffered a head injury, that you do not rush back into the game. There are a number of related issues, such as concussion and dental damage, which need to be considered closely first.

Once you have ascertained which type of dental injury has occurred, you can identify what sort of treatment is required. Most dentists recommend that you try and get professional treatment for dental injuries within 60 minutes, especially if it involves a dislodged or missing tooth.

  1. Chipped or fractured teeth

    Badly chipped or fractured teeth can be very sensitive and painful, especially on a cold winter’s day. Therefore, it may help to lodge a piece of sugar free chewing gum onto the damaged tooth. This will stop the cold air reaching it until you can get to a dentist.

  2. Dislodged teeth

    If your tooth has been moved, but not knocked out completely, then the tooth can often be saved. Do not pull the tooth out. Apply a cold compress to your face to reduce any pain or swelling and then head straight for the emergency dentist.

  3. Knocked out teeth

    If your tooth is knocked out, don’t despair. Your dentist may still be able to replace it as long as you get emergency treatment ASAP. And if you want your tooth to be replaced, don’t forget to take it with you! It’s no use to anyone if you leave it out on the playing field.

What else do you need to be aware of?

As we mentioned above, the injury to your tooth may require emergency dental treatment. However, it may only be a part of your overall injury list. Dental, head and facial injuries can have long-term repercussions, so it is important that you are thoroughly checked out before resuming play.

Because many dental injuries result from a blow to head or face, there is a high probability that they may be accompanied by a case of concussion. The first point to note here is that you should therefore be wary about rushing away to get emergency dental treatment – make sure someone else drives you, as you may still be disorientated.

Damaged teeth, swelling to the face and bruising to the jaw can often lead to problems with eating, drinking and talking. They can also cause longer-term issues to do with the balance of the temporomandibular joint. As mentioned above, this is one of the most complex joints in the body and misalignment of the jaw can cause a host of aches, pains and spasms in other parts of the body.
Your dentist will be able to advise you on the true extent of your injury. In some cases, treatment may need to be long-term. Most experts recommend that people who have suffered dental trauma have regular checks to ensure that there are no other issues coming to light once the visible damage has disappeared.

Can you minimise the risk of dental injury during sports?

The most important step that you can take to minimise dental injury during sport is to wear a mouthguard. There are a number of different types of mouthguard available. The problem is that not all are of the same quality and not all are suitable for every type of sport or age group.

As a rule of thumb, a mouthguard should be comfortable to wear and it should be at least 4mm thick. This is viewed by experts as the optimum thickness for reducing impact and protecting the teeth. Broadly speaking, there are two types of mouthguard to choose from:

  1. The first type of mouthguard is the cheapest and probably the least effective. It is a standard mouthguard that you boil in water and then bite into to shape. It is most suitable for younger people, where the impact in sports is still minimal and the mouthguard needs to be changed regularly as they grow and their bite changes.

    The pros for this type of mouthguard are the low cost and the fact that they are easily available. You can buy them in most sports shops and pharmacies. On the downside, however, they rarely provide a perfect fit. As well as providing inadequate protection, therefore, they can also interfere with speech and breathing.

  2. The second type of mouthguard is only available from your dentist. Your dentist will take an exact mould of your mouth and create a mouthguard perfectly fitted to protect your teeth.

    This type of mouthguard is best suited to older people whose teeth have stopped growing and who can invest in a more expensive piece of equipment for the longer term. It provides the best protection against injury as it follows the line of your teeth. It also makes talking and breathing much easier – which is a big advantage if you’re breathing heavily during a competitive sports fixture!

No mouthguard is perfect and don’t forget that your mouthguard will get damaged too. It’s a good idea that, when you visit your dentist for your regular check up every six months, to take along your mouthguard so that a professional can inspect it. They will ensure it is still providing a high standard of protection and still fitting perfectly around your teeth.

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