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From the American Association of Orthodontists

Inexpensive Sports Safety Precautions Can Help Prevent Costly Sports Injuries

Jennifer Montana, wife of football-great Joe, teams with AAO to help increase mouth guard, face shield use in kids’ sports


Dentist examining child's mouthA child's mouth and face can easily be injured if the correct precautions and equipment are not used during organized sports. In fact, sports-related injuries are the leading cause of emergency room visits in 12- to 17-year-olds according to the Centers for Disease Control, and a typical emergency room visit for a child can cost anywhere from $425 to $550 according to Blue Cross Blue Shield.

A new survey, however, reveals parents do not take advantage of some inexpensive protective sports gear, such as mouth guards, in many kids' sports. Since many oral sports injuries can be prevented by wearing mouth guards, why aren't more parents and kids getting the message?

Jennifer Montana urges mouth guard use

To help educate parents, coaches, and kids, the American Association of Orthodontists (AAO) has teamed up with Jennifer Montana, wife of football great Joe Montana and the mother of two sons who play football, to urge athletes to "play it safe" by wearing mouth guards and other appropriate protective gear when participating in many sports and activities. To kick off Jennifer's involvement and bring attention to April's National Facial Protection Month, Montana is helping the AAO to announce the results of a recent survey on sports, mouth guards and facial protection. The AAO commissioned an online survey of parents to determine why many preventable face and mouth injuries are still so prevalent among young athletes.

Overall, the survey results showed the need for better education of parents and coaches about the risks and need for mouth guards and other protective measures in contact sports. The survey found:

  • Mouth guard use is very low:  An astounding 67% of parents surveyed said that their child does not wear a mouth guard; yet 70% said that their biggest fear when their child plays organized sports is that they will get hurt.  Nearly half (47 percent) of parents who said their child has sustained a mouth injury while playing an organized sport believed the injury could have been prevented if their child was wearing a mouth guard.
  • ER visits for sports injuries common: One out of every four (27%) parents surveyed said their child has sustained an injury during an organized sport that resulted in a trip to the emergency room.
  • Coaches and leagues fail to encourage mouth guard use.  Most coaches and leagues are not advising the use of mouth guards.  Of the parents whose children do not wear a mouth guard during organized sports, including practice, 84% said it's because the league or coach does not require it.
  • Misconceptions about mouth guards abound.  Many parents have misconceptions about the sports in which kids should wear mouth guards.  The sports parents most cited where mouth guards should be required were football (90%), roller/ice hockey (74%) and wrestling (65%). Less than half of the parents surveyed felt mouth guards were necessary for other popular contact sports, including basketball (36%), baseball/softball (37%) and soccer (45%), this despite evidence that roughly three times as many mouth injuries occur on the basketball court as on the football field and the fact that the average high school baseball pitcher can throw a fast ball between 75-85 miles per hour, so that being hit in the mouth with a baseball can be compared to being hit in the mouth with a speeding car on the highway.  Only 3% said that cheerleading should require the use of mouth guards.
  • Collision and contact sports have higher injury rates. Mouth guards should be worn in all contact sports. Specifically, baseball, soccer, basketball and football account for about 80% of all sports-related emergency room visits for children between 5 and 14 years of age, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
  • Cheerleading is one of the most dangerous sports for women: According to MSNBC.com, cheerleading accounts for 65% of all catastrophic injuries in high school girls' athletics.
  • Children with braces need to wear mouth guards: One out of every three (31%) parents reported that their child had orthodontic treatment or braces while playing an organized sport.  Children in orthodontic treatment should wear a mouth guard during organized sports and practice. Patients can sustain mouth lacerations if braces are hit with a ball or by another player, injuries that may require extensive repair and lengthen orthodontic treatment time

"As a parent of two children who play football, I know firsthand how important it is to keep your kids safe on the playing field," said Montana. "The survey results, though, highlight the need for parents and coaches of kids in other contact sports, such as baseball, softball, soccer and basketball, to better understand the risks and the need for the use of mouth guards and other facial protection."  More needs to be done to correct what Dr. Hugh R. Phillis, an AAO trustee and orthodontist in Nashua, New Hampshire called the "disconnect" between parents' professed interest in sports safety and taking the simple and often inexpensive steps available to reduce the injury risk.

Mouth guards inexpensive but effective

Mouth guards are one of the least expensive pieces of protective equipment available. Over-the-counter versions (stock and boil and bite) cost as little as $5, although custom-fit mouth guards may offer greater protection and allow athletes to communicate more easily. "The key point is to play it safe," says Dr. Phillis.  "Any type of mouth guard is better than none," he says.

Not only do mouth guards save teeth, they may protect jaws. An orthodontist can recommend the best mouth guard for an athlete who wears braces.  "A mouthguard is a challenge for a child with braces," notes Dr. Phillis, "because unless it is specially designed it could slow down treatment." 

"I've seen children and adults ruin their healthy, beautiful smiles - or worse - because they do not take the proper precautions during sports," says Raymond George, Sr., DMD, orthodontist and AAO president. "Mouth guards should be common sense for parents, athletes and coaches when it comes to hard hitting sports."

Mouth guards can provide protection only when they are worn. So parents and coaches should remind youngsters to always wear them when participating in any activity during which the mouth might come into contact with a hard object or the pavement.

Consistent use of other protective equipment is important, too. Mandated for many organized sports, helmets save lives and prevent some types of head injuries. Face guards, devices made of plastic or metal that attach to baseball and football helmets, also help to prevent facial and eye injuries.

Safety tips

  • Wear mouth guards for contact sports. Mouth guards can help prevent jaw, mouth and teeth injuries and are less costly than repairing an injury.
  • Wear a helmet. Helmets absorb the energy of an impact. Some may even reduce the risk of concussion.
  • Wear protective eyewear. Eyes are extremely vulnerable.
  • Wear a face shield to avoid scratched or bruised skin. Hockey pucks, basketballs, and racquetballs can do severe damage.

In addition:

  • Be alert, even as a spectator. Alert spectators can avoid foul baseballs and flying hockey pucks. Watch your step when climbing bleachers.
  • Be aware of family pets.  According to the Centers for Disease Control, approximately 4.5 million people are bitten by dogs each year. Almost one in five of those who are bitten require medical attention. A March 2009 study reported that 27 percent of dog bite injuries were caused by family pets.
  • Buckle up and use child safety seats: Unbuckled passengers are more likely to suffer a brain injury in a crash than the buckled driver. 
  • Keep babies and toddlers safe: They crawl and climb, so pad sharp corners of tables, lock cabinets, install stairwell safety gates, and secure windows. They also teethe, so hide sharp pencils. 
  • Use common sense. If an activity carries risk of dental/facial injury, gear up. Without it, even a basketball game could land you or a loved one in the emergency room.

National Facial Protection Month is sponsored annually by the American Association of Orthodontists, the American Association of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeons, and the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry. Orthodontists are specialists in the diagnosis, prevention and treatment of dental and facial irregularities who receive two to three years of specialized education beyond dental school to learn the proper way to align and straighten teeth. For more information about orthodontics or for the names of AAO member orthodontists in your area, click here. Your dentist can refer you to orthodontists near you.