Every four years, many of us take the time to get out of the heat and take in the world’s spectacle of sport, the Olympics. I’m amazed at how quickly (after just a few seconds) I can transform to an expert on synchronized diving or women’s rowing. It is comforting that I’m not alone, as over the past week I’ve heard patients and friends discussing the finer points of beach volleyball or shooting sports. The Olympics seem to unite us all in our expertise.
As a dentist, this is the first Olympics I have noticed a few athletes wearing special, custom fit mouthguards to enhance their athletic performance. You have to look close, but they are out there. The appliances that actually work are a little more inconspicuous than the jewels sported by Ryan Lochte after his gold.
The way our teeth and jaws fit together can have an effect on a lot of things. This includes athletic performance. In the past, we have touched on the negative effects of a bad bite, such as jaw pain, migraine headaches, jaw locking, and neck/shoulder problems. On the positive side, there is research that shows that a healthy bite and jaw position can actually improve your health. To go a step further, some studies show an improvement in athletic performance by holding your teeth and jaw joints in a relaxed position so that you cannot clench your teeth together. The buzzword for this technology is performance mouthwear.
There are three main ways in which a proper jaw position can improve athletic performance. First, if the lower jaw is positioned down and forward, the airway from the mouth and nose to the lungs is forced into a more open position. This makes breathing easier and allows more airflow to and from the lungs. The second way that mouthwear can improve performance is by eliminating the clenching of teeth during exertion. Gritting your teeth helps to activate a cascade of stress hormones, including cortisol, that negatively affect concentration and endurance. By keeping athletes from clenching, performance mouth guards reduce the release of these stress hormones. Studies have shown that athletes can react faster, lift more weight, and jump higher with their jaw in the proper athletic position. Finally, performance mouth guards position the jaw joint so that crucial nerves and blood vessels behind the condyles (where the bottom jaw attaches to your skull or the hinge) are not impinged upon. This condylar position (where there is space behind where your lower jaw and skull meet) has also been shown to reduce the incidence of concussions.
So what does it take to have a performance mouth guard fabricated? On the first dental visit, custom impressions and an accurate bite must be taken of the athlete’s teeth. This information is then sent to a special lab where the mouth guard is custom made and returned to the dentist. A second office visit is required to deliver the appliance. Performance mouthwear has been shown to help athletes in almost all sports. There are different versions of the guards for contact and non-contact activities. For more information and some pretty pictures of the different types of performance mouthwear available, go to www.underarmour.com.
Until next time, keep smiling.
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