Sports dental injuries are no laughing matter

More than three million teeth are knocked out in youth sports each year but some can be prevented or successfully treated.

The crunch of helmets as players tangle for a loose football, the swoosh of the net as an outside jumper is made and the crack of the bat as a guaranteed double sails into right center field are awesome sounds to sports fans but for dentists, they’re reminders that a player is just one misstep away from a dental injury.

dental_story“Basketball and baseball are the two biggest mouth-injuring sports,” says Stephen Mitchell, D.M.D., associate professor in the UAB Department of Pediatric Dentistry. “And the most common injuries we see are broken, displaced or knocked out teeth, and broken jaws.”

According to a report by the U.S. Surgeon General, craniofacial injuries sustained during sporting activities are a major source of nonfatal injury and disability in children and adults, accounting for up to one-third of all sports injuries. The National Youth Sports Safety Foundation estimates that more than 3 million teeth will be knocked out in youth sporting activities this year.

The increasing participation of girls and young women in competitive sports means that they, just like their male counterparts, should know the risks of dental injuries and use additional protective gear as appropriate, Mitchell says.

Mitchell says mouth guards and helmets with face protectors are the best way for kids to avoid dental injuries while playing sports.

“If the child has a full set of permanent teeth then a custom guard can be made that will provide protection but be small enough to make it easy to communicate with teammates,” Mitchell says. “But if they still have some of their baby teeth, a custom guard is a waste of money. Parents will be better off going to the store and buying one of the guards that can be boiled and molded to their child’s mouth.”

So what should you do if despite your best preventive efforts your child still hurts his or her teeth or jaw?

If a tooth is broken or cracked, see a dentist within 24 hours, Mitchell says. If a tooth or teeth have been displaced or knocked out, Mitchell says, take the child immediately to the emergency room and to try to preserve the tooth.

“A tooth that has been knocked out needs to be back in the mouth within 30 minutes for the best chance of long-term survival,” Mitchell says. He offers these tips for preserving the tooth, which can even help past the ideal 30-minute window:

  • Avoid touching the root because it can be damaged easily.
  • If the tooth is dirty, hold it by the upper part and rinse it off with milk until most of the dirt is washed away. If you don't have milk, don’t clean it. Wiping it off may cause more damage.
  • If your child is old enough not to swallow it, try to gently put the tooth back in its socket for the best chance of preservation.
  • If you can’t get it back in the socket, put it in a cup of milk and head for the dentist or emergency room.

“We tell people to put the tooth in milk because the cells around the root are still alive after it is knocked out and milk can provide nutrients to the cells to help keep them alive,” Mitchell adds. “Do not put the tooth in water. It can cause the cells to burst and makes saving the tooth much less likely.”

Jaw injuries may be much less obvious than a broken or knocked-out tooth but they are no less serious, Mitchell says. If a child falls hard enough to cut their chin, or takes an especially hard hit, it could easily cause breaks in the jaw. In an injury such as this, a child should be seen by a doctor within 24 hours.

No matter the injury, Mitchell says caring properly for the mouth afterward is key to successful healing.

“Following an injury a child’s mouth will be sore and they will want to do everything they can to make it not hurt. But, continuing to brush their teeth and practice good oral hygiene is extremely important,” he says. “It is the same as keeping any other wound clean, the cleaner the mouth is kept, the better it heals.”

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