Top Dentists 2013: Can Dentistry Make You a Better Athlete?

A mouthguard may increase an athlete's oxygen intake.

By: Melissa Romero

A mouthguard may increase an athlete's oxygen intake. Photograph courtesy of Under Armour.

Dentists not only keep patients’ smiles radiant—they’re also helping athletes become better, faster, and stronger.

Specialists in the growing field of neuromuscular dentistry are designing sports-performance mouthguards for serious athletes who desire a boost during competition.

The devices work by releasing jaw tension in athletes, who tend to clench their teeth while training and competing, says Tenleytown dentist Eugene Giannini. “DC is a city of clenchers and grinders,” he says, adding that he’s even noticed people in his yoga class tightening their jaws. This constant tension saps energy and reduces oxygen intake, causing an athlete to lose momentum. That’s where the mouthguard comes in.

By using a scanning machine that tracks a patient’s jaw movements and motor skills, dentists can find the precise position at which the facial muscles are most relaxed, says Dr. Alex Naini of Vienna, who treats local athletes including Redskins linebacker Lorenzo Alexander. Then the patient is fitted with a mouthguard, which moves the jaw forward, releasing tension and opening the airway to allow for increased oxygen intake. The plastic guards are similar to the ones that some athletes, such as hockey players, wear to protect their teeth.

While research on the effects of sports-performance mouthguards is sparse, one small study published in Compendium of Continuing Education in Dentistry found that wearing a special mouthguard improved participants’ auditory and visual reaction times when they’re given a specific task to perform.

Football players aren’t the only athletes getting fitted; Naini says the mouthpiece is also popular with golfers, baseball players, and weightlifters. Better performance comes at a price: Custom mouthguards typically cost $1,500 to $2,000.

If you’re interested in a custom-fit, sports-performance mouthguard, look for a dentist who has taken a series of seminars or courses on the technology—two major brands are ArmourBite and ActionGuard—and who belongs to an organization such as the Academy for Sports Dentistry, the American Academy of Craniofacial Pain, the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, the American Academy of Orofacial Pain, or the American Academy of Dental Sleep Medicine. Your chances of getting a proper fit are better if a practitioner is well versed in treating sleep apnea and other neuromuscular conditions, such as TMJ.

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