Many Australians have a passion for sport, whether it’s playing footy or netball, skateboarding in a bowl, or cycling on a long, open road. There’s a thrill that appeals to sport lovers, but the spills can be devastating. Whether it’s a collision on the field, a tumble on a street or equipment failure – the risk of contact to the face and teeth is an ever-present danger. To minimise this risk, it’s a good idea to wear a mouthguard.

What is a mouthguard?

A mouthguard is a thick, often spongy shield that fits over your teeth. Mouthguards are usually worn during sports and other activities that involve a high risk of impact to the face.

They can be helpful outside of sports too. For instance, you might need to use a specialised mouthguard for jaw issues or teeth grinding. Dentists sometimes use special types of mouthguards to help treat snoring or sleep apnoea as well.

What are the risk factors when playing sport?

An injury can result in a loss of one or more teeth, broken or chipped teeth, jaw fractures or injuries to the soft tissue of the mouth. Dental trauma can also include damage to the gums and lips.

According to the Australian Dental Association (ADA), about one-third of traumatic injuries to teeth are sports-related. Sports Medicine Association Australia suggests that 50% of children experience some form of dental injury.

The good news is that injuries can often be prevented by using a custom-fitted mouthguard every time you play or train.

How can a mouthguard help?

When there’s direct impact to the lower part of your face, the force can travel through your jaw, teeth and even the upper part of your skull. This can increase the risk of injuries like front teeth fractures and even concussions. Blows to your lower jaw might cause the jaws to slam together and damage both rows of teeth.

Mouthguards act as a buffer for these kinds of impact. The spongy material helps to absorb the shock and lessen the force applied to your teeth, jaws or skull.

When to wear a mouthguard during sport

Mouthguards should be worn during games and training. Basically, it’s best to wear a mouthguard any time there’s a risk of impact to your face. Sports Medicine Australia and the Australian Dental Association recommend that regardless of whether the sport you play is considered a ‘contact sport’ or not, you’re encouraged to wear a mouthguard any time you’re on the field.

Choosing the right mouthguard

There are two main mouthguard options on the market:

Custom-fitted: Constructed and fitted by a dental professional, a customised mouthguard provides the best protection for your teeth. The dentist takes an impression of your teeth and makes a plaster model to get the perfect fit. The mouthguard needs to be at least 4mm thick, with a cushioning effect that provides protection against impact. It fits snugly so it’s still possible to talk – an important aspect during an intense match.

Boil-and-bite: Over-the-counter mouthguards that are self-fitted by immersing in hot water then biting into the mouthguard so it takes the shape of the teeth and mouth. It’s less effective and can be more uncomfortable as it doesn't conform as well to the person’s bite and anatomy of the jaw.

However, if that’s all that’s available when you need it, it’s better than no mouthguard.

Will a mouthguard affect my performance?

For custom-fitted mouthguards, the answer is no. Various studies have explored mouthguards’ effects on athletic performance. Most research points to there being no negative impact on strength or performance2,3.

However, some studies did report negative effects when wearing boil-and-bite mouthguards because of discomfort or breathing difficulties4. A poor fit is usually the culprit in these cases. This is another reason why it’s important to invest in a custom-made mouthguard.

How to care for your mouthguard

After using a mouthguard, rinse it in soap and warm water, then allow it to air-dry. Also, use a mouthwash occasionally to disinfect it. When not in use, it should be kept in a cool place and stored in a plastic container with vents that allow air to circulate.

Most importantly, remember to bring it home after the game. If it’s left in the car, for example, the heat can destroy the shape, rendering it useless.

Mouthguards for kids

Many kids experience a dental injury when they’re playing sport.

If your child isn’t keen on the idea of wearing a mouthguard, it can be helpful to point out sports idols who wear one. Most popular sports have star players who wear mouthguards. For example, LeBron James and other American NBA players are often spotted with their mouthguards.

Mouthguards can prevent dental injuries regardless of your age, so it’s important for athletes of all ages to consider.

Inspection time

Make sure your mouthguard is in good condition. To be certain, ask your dental professional to inspect it during a check-up. If it’s been damaged when playing, it may need to be replaced.

If the mouthguard is in tip-top condition and you don’t experience any major dental work such as restoration, it can last for quite a few years. When it comes to kids’ mouthguards, they need to be replaced every 12 to 18 months due to the child’s growth and any new teeth that alter the fit.

Remember, if a mouthguard starts to feel uncomfortable or doesn’t fit well, see your dentist for help.