This is the time of year when our dental attention is turned toward the safety of young (and not so young ) athletes.
Of course the traditionally accepted reason for wearing a mouth guard is protection of the teeth. According to the NFL and NHL fact sheet, “five million teeth are knocked out in sports-related injuries every year in the U.S.” Those are better odds than winning the lottery but all based on bad luck and some failure to prepare.
Athletic mouth guards are an essential part of an athlete’s safety equipment. No one would suggest that football player (American football) go onto the field without a helmet to protect from or at least reduce the chance of a head injury. There is a chink in the armor of a helmet however and that is the lower jaw. Speaking from personal experience a fist or forearm can get under the face mask of a helmet and reach the unprotected lower face.
When a skull is viewed either directly or with an x-ray there is a very thin layer of bone between the “ball” of the lower jaw and the base of the brain. This thin layer of bone may more closely resemble a membrane than bone and in some cases may actually have a perforation or void in the bone’s integrity.
If the lower jaw is displaced towards the back of the mouth by even a relatively minor blow, the energy of the impact can be transferred directly to this area of the brain. This is the basic mechanism of the “knock out” punch to the chin.
While a mouth guard is usually associated with protecting the athletes teeth, which it does, a greater value is in protection of their brain during impact. This is accomplished by distributing the energy of the impact through the teeth and into the facial bones rather than focusing all of the energy onto a single point in the weakest area of the skull.
I recognize that words like “skull,” “facial bones” and “impact” may conjure unpleasant images for some individuals yet I feel it is necessary to speak directly and clearly regarding the importance of these protective appliances.
Some sports are not considered contact sports so wearing a mouth guard may seem less important. This is not so. After 40 years of treating sports injuries I can attest to the value of a mouth guard in basketball, baseball and even tennis. To this point I have not seen a mouth injury related to the actual game of golf although I’m sure injudicious management of a score card might provoke an oral injury peripherally associated with the game.
There are a multitude of reasons to wear a mouth guard that would make this blog way too tedious to read but are all important and can be easily researched by those who want the information.
Lest anyone think these comments are being made only as a self serving effort to “sell” mouth guards let me say that by going to any athletic supply store you can get a serviceable appliance for less than ten bucks. In some cases way less than ten bucks. It does require the effort to do the job yourself and follow instructions but it may save more than your smile.