Gum Injuries: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment Options

The hard and soft tissues of the mouth are a study in contrasts. The teeth are covered by enamel—the hardest substance in the body; the gums that support them, on the other hand, are soft, moist and sensitive. Gum tissue can be damaged by accidents, falls, sports injuries, and other types of trauma. Gum injuries can also result from consuming food or beverages that are too hot, or from foreign bodies that are chewed on or otherwise enter the mouth. Infections sometimes develop under the gum line, which can be painful and require immediate treatment. Here’s a brief guide to a few common types of gum injury.

Soft Tissue Injury

Injury to the soft tissues of the mouth—the lips, tongue, gums and cheek lining—may occur with or without damage to the teeth. To give first aid when this kind of injury is suspected, ask the patient to rinse the mouth with dilute salt water. If foreign material is present, gently try to remove it by hand, or by swishing vigorously with diluted salt water; rinse again if necessary.

The mouth may seem quite bloody, but that appearance often results from blood mixed with saliva. If an open wound is found, bleeding can usually be stopped by pressing on the site with damp gauze or a wet tea bag. If bleeding can’t be controlled within 10 or 15 minutes, or if there is severe pain or disorientation, go to an emergency room at once.

Otherwise, make arrangements to see a dentist within six hours of the injury for evaluation and treatment. An examination may involve both visual assessment and x-rays. In addition to dental restorations, if needed, initial treatment of gum injuries may include sutures (stitches) or other procedures. An antibiotic medication or tetanus shot may also be recommended.

Foreign Bodies in Gums

When foreign bodies become lodged in the gums, or in the space between teeth and gums, the consequences can range from irritation to infection. Popcorn hulls and toothpick splinters are a few of the common culprits, but many other items can cause this problem. If you notice an object lodged under the gum line, try working a piece of dental floss gently up and down against a nearby tooth to free it. You can also try pushing lightly with a toothpick, but avoid too much pressure; this may drive the object deeper or further irritate the gum tissue. If these steps don’t help, see a dentist as soon as possible to prevent infection from developing.

Gum Infection (Periodontal Abscess)

A gum abscess (sometimes called a gum infection or a gum boil) is a pus-filled sac that may cause moderate to severe pain, and requires prompt treatment. The underlying infection may come from foreign substances trapped under the gum line, or from uncontrolled periodontal (gum) disease. While they may not develop overnight, periodontal abscesses may suddenly cause intense discomfort or toothache-like pain because of the pressure rapidly building within them. Other symptoms may include throbbing, tenderness, swelling, and sometimes fever. Occasionally, bad breath or a sour taste in the mouth is caused by an abscess. It’s important to treat an abscess quickly because if left unchecked, the infection can cause accelerated bone loss that can ultimately lead to tooth loss, and can spread to other parts of the body. Treatment may include draining the pus and fluid (which often causes immediate pain relief), controlling the infection, and removing the causes of the infection.

Gum Abscesses: Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment Options

Most of the time, if you have a severe gum abscess, you’ll know it right away. An abscess can be one of the most painful of dental conditions—and it often develops rapidly. Occasionally, however, it may result from a simmering infection that builds up over a long period of time. In either case, it indicates that a pus-filled sac has begun to form beneath the gum line. A periodontal (gum) abscess may cause intense pain due to the pressure building up inside of it. Immediate treatment is needed—not only to relieve pain, but also to keep the infection from spreading, and to prevent potential tooth loss.

What Causes an Abscess?

Particles of food or foreign materials trapped in the spaces between teeth and gums are one common cause of periodontal abscesses. If not removed, bacteria present in the foreign substance or in the mouth may begin to cause inflammation and infection. Uncontrolled periodontal (gum) disease is another potential cause: When harmful bacteria begin to flourish in protected pockets beneath the gums, an abscess may develop. Occasionally, an infection that starts deep inside a tooth may travel through the tooth roots and into the tissue nearby, causing an abscess.

Symptoms of an Abscess

Sharp or throbbing pain in the jaw, which may be moderate to intense, is the most common symptom of an abscess; fever or swelling may also be noticed. Most who experience these painful symptoms will seek treatment right away—and fortunately, treatment usually stops the pain immediately. Other symptoms of a possible gum abscess include unpleasant tastes or odors (bad breath), which may be caused by pus leaking into the mouth. Occasionally, an abscess may cause little or no pain—but it still needs treatment, because the infection won’t go away on its own, and may cause further damage.

Treatment and Prevention of an Abscess

If you think you may have an abscess, call your dentist’s office right away, explain the symptoms you are experiencing, and follow their advice. You will probably need to come in quickly for an evaluation and treatment. Normally, treatment involves draining the pus, controlling the infection (using antibiotics in some cases), and removing the cause of the infection. Depending on the severity of the infection, further procedures, such as periodontal (gum) surgery, a root canal or a tooth extraction, may be recommended. It’s very important to treat an abscess properly; if left untreated, the infection can spread into the sinus cavities, the face, or the bone of the jaw.

Maintaining good oral hygiene is the first step toward keeping an abscess from forming. Clearing food debris and dental plaque from the mouth with daily brushing and flossing stops harmful bacteria from proliferating in the mouth and under the gums. For some individuals, therapeutic mouth rinses and periodontal treatments may be recommended as preventive measures against all types of oral infections, including abscesses, gum disease and tooth decay.

How Do I Stop Tooth Pain?

It may happen only occasionally: a sharp twinge when you’re eating a “challenging” food like steak or drinking a cold beverage. Or, it may start off as a mild pain that grows into a throbbing you can’t ignore. But no matter when or where it happens, tooth pain is an issue that needs your attention. Because whether it’s minor sensitivity or an unrelenting ache, the pain indicates a potential problem in your mouth that should be addressed.

By far the most common cause of tooth pain is tooth decay, a chronic disease caused by harmful bacteria in the mouth. When the protective enamel layer is eroded by an untreated cavity, bacteria can make their way deeper into the tooth. They may eventually reach the nerve cells in the tooth’s pulp, where they cause inflammation and pain. Preventing cavities from forming, and treating them promptly if they do, is a major goal of general dentistry.

But many other things can also cause tooth pain. Worse, it’s sometimes difficult to pinpoint the precise source of the pain, describe the exact sensation you are feeling, or determine what’s causing it. In fact, the only sure way to diagnose the cause of tooth pain is to have a dentist perform a thorough examination. This may include a series of questions about what you’re experiencing, and one or more diagnostic tests, such as x-rays.

However, there are some general categories we can use to describe tooth pain. The following sections list a few of the most common symptoms, the potential causes of tooth pain, and possible treatments for the underlying conditions.

Sensitivity to hot or cold foods/beverages

Many people experience tooth sensitivity from time to time—particularly after having dental or orthodontic treatment, or in an area of the mouth with old dental work (such as large fillings). If the pain is momentary and relatively minor, it’s probably not a serious issue. Try using a toothpaste specially formulated for sensitive teeth for a few weeks, and always brush gently; you can also use over-the-counter pain relievers if needed. If the pain doesn’t go away or worsens, see your dentist.

Lingering pain after chewing, or with hot/cold foods

If tooth pain remains long after a stimulus (like touch or temperature) is gone, it may mean that damage has occurred in the pulp—the soft material deep inside the tooth, containing nerves, blood vessels and connective tissue. This damage is generally caused by untreated decay or physical trauma (injury). If the pulp is inflamed, the tooth will probably need root canal treatment. This involves cleaning out the infected pulp material, disinfecting the canals (tiny spaces) inside the tooth, filling them with inert material and sealing them off from the outside. If you’re experiencing lingering tooth pain, you should schedule an examination right away.

Sharp pain when biting or chewing

Sharp, stinging pain may be caused by untreated decay, a loose filling, or a cracked tooth. All of these issues need prompt treatment to prevent them from getting worse. Usually, decay can be removed and fillings placed during an office visit at your general dentist. However, a cracked tooth may require a root canal procedure in order to save it; for this treatment, you may be referred to a dental specialist called an endodontist.

Constant and severe pain

Severe pain may come from a particular location, or may be spread out and hard to pinpoint. If pain seems to come from the general area of a few teeth, it probably indicates acute infection in a tooth’s pulp. When gums become swollen and sensitive to touch, it may mean that a pulp infection has spread into the surrounding periodontal tissues, forming a gum abscess. In either case, you should see a dentist immediately. A root canal will generally be needed—but the good news is, it will quickly relieve the pain. In the mean time, you can take over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medication such as ibuprofen.

Dull ache and pressure in upper teeth and sinus area

This could be a dental problem—for example, the result of teeth grinding and clenching, or possibly an inflammation or infection of the gums. Or, it could result from a cold, flu, or sinus infection. If accompanied by flu-like symptoms, consult your family physician if necessary; remarkably, sinus pain sometimes feels very much like tooth pain. But if the condition doesn’t improve, or seems to be related to your teeth, consider seeing your dentist.

Have You Experienced A Traumatic Dental Injury?

Dental trauma—a wound to the teeth, gums or jaws produced by a sudden physical force—can affect anyone at almost any time. While contact sports are one major cause of dental trauma, accidents and falls in the home and motor vehicle collisions cause far more injuries to the teeth, both minor and serious. Regardless of the cause, trauma victims have a better chance of full recovery if they receive appropriate first aid and prompt treatment.

It’s important to know what to do when a dental emergency happens, and to take quick action when needed. It is equally important to make sure that the injured person sees a dentist in a reasonable amount of time, depending on the nature of the injury. Some injuries require immediate medical attention, while others can wait for 12 hours or more; here are the most common types of dental trauma, and some guidelines for handling them.

Knocked-Out Tooth

When a permanent tooth is completely knocked out from its socket (the term used is avulsed), immediate action is needed to give you the best chance of saving it—and every moment counts. First, recover the tooth and, if it is dirty, gently clean it with water—but avoid handling the tooth by its roots. If possible, put the tooth back in its socket, facing the correct way, and hold it in place with a damp tissue or gauze. If that isn’t possible, place the tooth between the cheek and gum, or into a plastic bag with the patient’s saliva, or in a cup of cold milk. Control bleeding by applying pressure to the area, and then go to the dental office or emergency room immediately. If a primary (baby) tooth is knocked out in an accident, it is not normally re-planted; however, treatment may still be needed. You should first control any bleeding, then make the child comfortable and seek the advice of a dental professional.

Loosened or Displaced Tooth

Even if it isn’t knocked out, a tooth may be displaced laterally (sideways) or pushed deeper into or out of its socket as a result of physical injury. In this case, it’s vital to see a dentist or dental specialist within six hours of the accident. A complete examination is needed to determine the extent of injury and to guide treatment. Loosened teeth are often stabilized with a splint, and may require root canal therapy; with appropriate treatment, however, they can often be preserved.

Broken Tooth

If a tooth is broken off or deeply fractured (cracked), it should receive professional treatment within 12 hours. The chances of saving it depend on where the break occurred, how severe it is, and the overall condition of the tooth’s pulp (nerve tissue) and the surrounding area in the jaw. Treatment may include splinting, root canal therapy or extraction, depending on the circumstances—but timely care can help bring about the best outcome.

A chipped tooth can generally be restored quite successfully. If chipping is minor and doesn’t extend into the tooth’s pulp, it can often be treated by cosmetic bonding at a scheduled office visit. If more of the tooth’s structure is missing, a dental crown and/or other treatments may be needed. Teeth that are loose, tender to the touch, or missing larger pieces should be examined in the dental office within 24 hours—unless the pain becomes significant. If pieces of the tooth are recovered, bring them with you when you go to the dentist.

Jaw Pain Due to Injury

Jaw pain that results from a traumatic injury may indicate a broken bone, damage to the jaw joint, a gum injury, and/or injured teeth. Apply ice immediately to reduce pain and swelling. If there is no bleeding, the jaw seems to be functioning without limitation, there is no displacement and the teeth are coming together properly when you bite, it is less likely anything is broken. However, x-rays may be necessary to determine if you have a hairline crack in the jaw bones. If you have pain or any doubts as to the seriousness of your condition, get an exam as soon as possible.

How to Fix Chipped, Cracked, or Broken Teeth

Teeth are frequently in harm’s way; by one estimate, a quarter of all 12-year-olds have injured their permanent teeth. Of course, the fact that dental injuries are common is no comfort when they happen to you—or your child. Fortunately, modern dental treatment can make your smile look great again—especially if you get prompt and appropriate care. That’s why it is important to know what to do when you break a tooth.

If a tooth has been damaged by a traumatic blow to the head, it’s a good idea to get checked out at an emergency room or urgent care center—particularly if there’s any dizziness, disorientation or loss of consciousness. If the injury is confined to the tooth or teeth, you may be able to wait until the next day (or longer for a tiny chip) to see a dentist. Here are some common types of tooth injuries and methods for repairing them:

Chipped Tooth

The appropriate treatment for a chipped tooth will depend on how much of the tooth has broken off. A small chip isn’t generally an emergency; it can often be repaired with dental bonding, which involves layering on a durable, tooth-colored material to restore the tooth’s shape. This is a relatively simple procedure that can be completed in one dental appointment. Because the bonding material has the same shade and transparency as natural teeth, it creates a beautiful repair. It is possible, however, that the bonding material will wear away over time and have to be replaced eventually. Minor chips can also be repaired with a porcelain veneers, which covers the entire front surface of the tooth instead of just the chipped area.

The repair of larger chips is more involved. A large chip that has not exposed or damaged the tooth’s pulp (nerve tissue) may need a veneer or crown (cap). This will likely take two visits, as your dentist needs to shape the remaining tooth structure to receive either a veneer or a crown, and then have the permanent restoration fabricated in a dental laboratory. The dentist will send you home with a temporary restoration (veneer or crown), and will call you back in when the permanent restoration is ready to be placed on your tooth.

A large chip that has exposed or damaged the tooth pulp will probably be painful, and may require immediate care; it will almost certainly need a crown, along with root canal treatment. This procedure involves removing exposed or infected pulp tissue from within the tooth and then sealing its central inner space (pulp chamber) and the narrow “canals” that branch from it down through the roots. Although it sounds complicated, root canal treatment is actually a routine dental procedure typically carried out under local anesthesia; it doesn’t feel much different than having a cavity filled, though it may take longer. Root canals can be performed by a general dentist or a specialist called an endodontist.

Sometimes teeth break because they have been weakened by untreated tooth decay, or because old dental work is failing. Repairing this may involve any of the procedures mentioned above. If the tooth has broken off at the gum line, it will probably have to be extracted. But your smile can still be restored beautifully with a permanent dental implant or natural-tooth bridge.

Cracked (Fractured) Tooth

A crack can begin from the chewing surface or the root of a tooth, and may cause severe pain or just intermittent discomfort. But because even a small crack can open a pathway to infection, it’s important to see a dentist—whether or not you are in pain. The dentist will x-ray the tooth to determine the extent of the damage and the appropriate course of action.

A crack that is entirely above the gum line and does not expose the tooth’s pulp is the easiest to treat. Depending on the size of the crack, the tooth may be restored with a tooth-colored filling material, a veneer or a crown. If the crack exposes the pulp, a root canal treatment and a crown may be able to save it.

A tooth with a crack that extends beneath the gum line and into the roots cannot always be saved. A tooth that is actually fractured into two pieces will have to be extracted and replaced. Sometimes it’s possible for you to receive a dental implant on the same day the broken tooth is removed—sparing you the need to schedule a second surgical appointment.

Jaw Pain Due to Injury

Jaw pain and soreness can have a number of different causes, including a traumatic injury to the face. Trauma can result in a variety of dental problems including a complex condition called Temporomandibular Joint Disorder (TMD). Many types of blunt trauma can result in damage to the upper or lower jaw or the temporomandibular joint (TMJ)—which is actually a set of paired joints, one on each side of the face, situated just in front of the ear canals.

Blows to the face from sports accidents, motor vehicle collisions, and falls are just a few of the things that can cause jaw injury; the pain that results may range from mild to severe. A damaged jaw may be actually broken (fractured), or it may be dislocated, meaning that it has shifted out of its proper position. This type of injury may also involve loosened or displaced teeth, a broken condyle (the ball-like piece at the head of the TMJ), and/or lacerations (cuts) and swelling.

Regardless of what caused the injury, jaw pain is often accompanied by muscle spasm in one or more of the large muscles on either side of the jaw. Following stress or injury, these muscles may lock up, essentially “freezing” the jaw in position in the body’s attempt to prevent further damage.

Broken Jaw

A jaw fracture is often suspected after serious facial injury. Symptoms of a broken jaw may include: facial bruising, swelling, or bleeding; stiffness of the jaw or difficulty opening or closing the mouth properly; pain or tenderness that gets worse when chewing; loosened teeth; and numbness of the face or lips. However, the only way to tell for sure if the jaw is broken is to have a thorough physical examination with diagnostic imaging (such as x-rays).

A person who may have a broken jaw should seek prompt medical evaluation and treatment. On the way to the emergency room or medical care provider, the jaw can be held in place with the hands to help reduce pain caused by movement; alternately, it can be bandaged with a cloth that wraps under the jaw and over the head. However, the bandage must allow the patient to breathe freely, and should be easily removable in case it is necessary to vomit. Ice or a cold pack should be applied to the outside of the injured area to help ease the pain and swelling.

Depending on the severity of the fracture, a broken jaw may be wired shut for a few weeks to aid healing, or it may be allowed to heal on its own. Surgery and dental work are sometimes needed to repair moderate or severe fractures. A diet of liquids (and possibly soft foods) will probably be recommended for a period of time. In addition, pain medication and antibiotics may be prescribed, especially if a tooth socket is fractured.

Dislocated Jaw

The symptoms of a dislocated jaw are similar to those of a broken jaw, but are sometimes less severe. They include: difficulty speaking and/or eating; inability to close the mouth properly; a bite that feels “crooked”, or teeth that don’t align properly; drooling or protrusion of the jaw; and pain in the affected area, which often gets worse when the jaw moves. However, as with a broken jaw, a prompt medical evaluation with x-rays is necessary to confirm the diagnosis.

First aid for a dislocated jaw is the same as for a fractured jaw. Treatment, however, may be different: It is sometimes possible for a medical professional to manually re-position the jaw; this may be done with the aid of anesthetic and muscle relaxing medications. When the jaw is put back in position, it may be stabilized with bandages or by other methods. Afterwards, the patient may need to avoid eating hard foods or opening the mouth wide for a period of several weeks.

Can Dental Treatment Cause Hearing Loss?

Experiencing sudden hearing loss shortly after receiving dental care is very rare, but can occur. It’s important to see a medical professional to discuss any hearing issues that suddenly develop, whether or not they occur soon after visiting the dentist. Often, early diagnosis and treatment can help address the problem quickly.

Sudden hearing loss, which may also include symptoms such as ringing in your ear, a feeling that your ear or sinuses are blocked, and dizziness, can potentially be caused by inflammation following dental work. It’s less likely that the problem is caused by an ear infection, but it is possible an existing infection was aggravated by treatments such as drilling or deep cleaning. It is extremely unlikely that a dentist might have caused a physical problem that has destroyed your ability to hear.

In fact, hearing loss is more likely to be caused by a lack of dental care. Tooth decay, abscesses and inflamed gums have been associated with temporary hearing loss and hearing problems such as tinnitus. And the medications we take to ease the pain of a toothache can cause hearing loss.

Toothache, painkillers and hearing loss

Over-the-counter (OTC) analgesics (pain relievers) such as ibuprofen, acetaminophen and aspirin are safe and effective when taken as directed for short periods. But when you’re trying to quiet the pain of infected gums and decayed teeth because you can’t afford dental treatment, you may be tempted to exceed the recommended dosage and take the medication over an extended period of time.

Doctors have known for a while that very high doses of aspirin can lead to temporary hearing loss and tinnitus (ringing in the ears). A more recent discovery is that moderate doses of OTCs, taken frequently, also raise the risk of hearing loss.

In one study on the effect of OTC painkillers on women found that “women who regularly took the analgesics ibuprofen or acetaminophen two or more days per week had an increased risk of hearing loss and the more often a woman took either of these medications, the higher her risk tended to be.”

“…compared with women who used ibuprofen less than one day per week, the increased risk of developing hearing loss ranged from 13% for those who used ibuprofen 2 to 3 days per week to 24% for women who used it 6 or more days per week.”

In general, try to seek help for a dental (or any medical) condition that is painful enough to cause you to over-medicate. Your dentist or other health professional can help you address the problem, and your hearing may return after you stop using the painkillers.

Analgesics belong to a family of drugs that are called “Ototoxic medications.” Ototoxic means “ear poisoning” and these drugs can cause permanent or temporary hearing loss along with extreme sensitivity to sound, pressure in the ears, and tinnitus.

Tinnitus: causes and treatments

People with tinnitus hear phantom ringing, buzzing, whistling and other sounds in their ears. These sounds are not produced by any exterior source. In some cases, the sounds heard by a person with tinnitus throb in time with the person’s heartbeat. The sounds heard may be loud or faint, may be heard all of the time or infrequently, and may occur in both ears or just one.

About 1 in 5 people are affected by tinnitus. Tinnitus itself is not a health condition, it is a symptom of a condition, such as ear injury, circulatory system disorder, inner ear cell damage, dental inflammation or gum infections, exposure to loud noises, or age-related hearing loss.

A healthcare professional can help to diagnose the cause of tinnitus, and provide treatment options.

Bruxism: the nightly grind

Tinnitus can cause people to lose sleep, due to the incessant sounds they hear in their heads. But other sleep difficulties can also cause dental problems. Among the most common dreamtime tooth destroyers is bruxism – the formal term for teeth grinding and clenching.

About 70% of all teeth grinding happens when we’re sleeping, and 40-million or so Americans are nocturnal teeth gnashers. Kids are far more likely to grind their teeth than adults, and children less than five years old are more likely to clench, gnash, and otherwise stress their teeth while sleeping. About 33% of kids grind their teeth.

But only 10 percent of people grind their teeth so hard and so often that they fracture their fillings, crack their crowns, and/or destroy their dental implants. It’s common for people to be totally unaware they are nocturnal grinders until the person they share a bedroom with points it out. Sore jaws, a clicking sound when you open your mouth, a dull constant headache, tender teeth, and even indentations on your tongue are other typical signs.

Bruxism can be a response to teeth that don’t line up properly. Some medications can cause teeth grinding (Prozac, Zoloft and Paxil are often associated with bruxism). It can also be caused by stress.

If you suspect that your bruxism is related to anxiety, you can try finding ways to reduce or control your anxiety. You can also try mindful relaxation techniques. As an example: when you feel your jaw clenching, make a point of relaxing your lower facial muscles, parting your teeth slightly and putting the very tip of your tongue between your teeth. Over time, this can help you relax and break the jaw clenching habit.

For anything more than the occasional bout of teeth grinding, you should see your dentist. He or she will check your bite and general dental health, and will probably ask about any medicines you take or stress that you have in your life.

The most common preventative treatment for severe cases of teeth grinding is to wear what’s called “a night bite plate” or a “bite splint.” Your dentist will fit one for you, some fit over the bottom teeth, others go on the top. In general, they work by compensating for misaligned teeth or by keeping your jaw more relaxed.

TMJ Dysfunctions

Both bruxism and tinnitus have been connected with problems connected with the temporomandibular joint (TMJ). This joint acts sort of like a sliding hinge, connecting your jawbone to your skull, and enabling your jaw to move freely.

The temporomandibular joint can be damaged by a direct injury to the jaw, as well as injuries to the spine and neck. Additionally, teeth clenching or grinding can cause inflammation and pain to the joint. Symptoms associated with TMJ disorder include pain in and around your ear and the lower portion or side face, difficulty chewing or painful chewing, reduced movement of the jaw, and inability to close/open the mouth fully. You may also hear a clicking sound when you open your mouth or chew.

TMJ problems may also cause headaches, dizziness, migraine symptoms, earache, tinnitus, and hearing loss.

Typically, a mild TMJ dysfunction heals over time, with no need for medical care. But you should seek help from a medical professional if you have persistent pain in or around your jaw, or can’t open or close your jaw completely. Your dentist or a TMJ specialist can help to diagnose and treat the problem, using treatments such as rest, moist heat, muscle-relaxing therapies and medications.

Bite guards (oral splints) are often prescribed for TMJ problems. These guards are similar to the ones used for people who grind their teeth, but tend to be more rigid than a guard intended to treat bruxism. Instead of simply protecting teeth from damage, an oral splint will also reposition your jaw and bite in order to relieve discomfort and help the TMJ heal. It’s best to get a bite guard – as well as your night guard – custom fitted by your dentist for the best results. One size really doesn’t fit all.

Your dental health has a profound effect on your overall wellness, and vice-versa. Regular dental care has benefits that go well beyond a white smile. If you’ve been delaying seeing your dentist due to budget concerns, consider a dental savings plan, an affordable alternative to dental insurance.

Protect your teeth with mouthguards while playing sports

How to Protect Your Teeth While Playing Sports

Helmets, knee pads, shin guards … anyone who plays sports or has an athletic kid is familiar with this protective gear. But unless your sport is football or hockey, you may have only seen mouth guards in the aisle of your local sports or drug store.

But any participant in a sport that involves possible (or even potential) impact with other players, balls, or hard surfaces should protect their teeth with a mouth guard. The American Dental Association recommends wearing mouth guards during all practices and competitions for the following sports: acrobats, basketball, boxing, field hockey, football, gymnastics, handball, ice hockey, lacrosse, martial arts, racquetball, roller hockey, rugby, shot putting, skateboarding, skiing, skydiving, soccer, squash, surfing, volleyball, water polo, weightlifting, and wrestling.

What Is an Athletic Mouth Guard?

Mouth guards fit over the upper teeth, and protect them from breaking, chipping or cracking due to impacts to your face and head and injuries directly to your mouth. Mouth guards also protect your mouth from your teeth – warding off cracked lips and bitten tongues. Dentists may advise those who wear braces or have dental restoration work (such as a bridge or a dental implant) in their lower jaws to obtain a mouth guard that protects the lower teeth as well.

The National Youth Sports Safety Foundation says that athletes who don’t wear mouth guards are 60 times more likely to damage their teeth. That’s no surprise. What is unexpected is how few people opt to wear a mouth guard. A study by the American Association of Orthodontist found that 84% of children playing in organized sports do not wear mouth guards because they are not required to wear them. While this study focused on kids it’s highly likely that adults aren’t wearing mouth guards when the rules don’t demand that they do so – unless they have already spent a lot of money at the dentist and are worried about protecting that investment.

The reasons given for not wearing mouth guards tend to be that they are uncomfortable, distracting during play, and it’s hard to breathe normally or speak clearly when wearing one. All of those issues can be addressed with the right mouth guard, fitted correctly. That said, in just one athletic season, athletes have a 1 in 10 chance of suffering a facial or dental injury. Those odds, and the high cost of restorative dental care, should make mouth guards an essential piece of sports equipment,

Types of Mouth Guards

There are three different types of mouth guards:

A ready-made mouth guard is the least-expensive option, costing about $5-$20. This is also exactly the type of mouth guard that is most likely to annoy whoever is wearing it. While they do come in three sizes – small, medium, and large – the sizing is subjective and this type of mouth guard can’t be atacustomized to fit the wearer’s mouth. Most dentists don’t recommend this type of mouth guard, but some say ready-mades are better than no mouth guard at all. Some readymade mouth guards like Battle Sport Science’s – Battle Oxygen Mouthguard series, they even come with a $5000 dental warranty and work with braces. Whichever mouth guard product you choose, it’s important to choose one that has the American Dental Association’s (ADA) Seal of Acceptance. This indicates that the mouth guard complies with the ANSI/SAI standard and is considered to be safe to wear.

“Boil and bite” mouth guards cost from $20-$50, and are the most popular type of mouth guards. These can be customized for a better fit – you heat the mouth guard and then bite down on it to reshape it to fit your mouth. While custom mouth guards will offer the ultimate in protection and comfort, boil and bites are a good option. Look for thermoplastic “boil and bite” mouth guards. However, boil and bites can feel a little bulky in your mouth, but they don’t have the odd taste and smell that many acrylic mouth guards harbor. The thermoplastic ones also tend to retain their flexibility over time better than the acrylic models, providing a more comfortable fit. Here again, as noted above, you want to look for the American Dental Association’s (ADA) Seal of Acceptance on the mouth guard’s packaging.

A custom-made mouth guard is made by a dentist or lab technician, and provides real comfort and protection. If you or your child has with braces, a protruding jaw, cleft palate, dental problems, allergies or sinus issues or wears removable bridges or dentures you should definitely consider a custom mouth guard. Ditto if over-the-counter mouth guards just don’t feel comfortable, make you feel like you can’t breathe properly, or otherwise annoy you. Price may be an issue though, custom mouth guards cost several hundred dollars – perhaps more if you have special dental issues.

Some studies, such as this one published by the Academy of General Dentistry, indicate that custom-made mouth guards reduce the chance of young athletes suffering a concussion. The study followed 412 players from six high school football teams. Three teams (220 athletes) were randomly assigned to wear custom-made mouth guards, and three teams (192 athletes) wore standard OTC mouth guards of their own choosing. All players wore the same style of football helmet.

According to the study, 8.3 percent of athletes in the OTC mouth guard group suffered MTBI/concussion injuries. For those with custom-made mouth guards, however, the rate was only 3.6 percent.

Cleaning an Athletic Mouth Guard

Don’t toss that mouth guard into your gym bag and leave it to mold away until you pop it in for the next game. Bacteria, mold, yeast, and all sorts of fungi can quickly start populating on a mouth guard that hasn’t been properly cleaned and stored, causing oral infections. Some studies indicate that unclean mouth guards can even cause respiratory infections and asthma attacks.

Clean your mouth guard as soon as possible – immediately is best – after using it to help ensure it doesn’t become a home for nasty microorganisms. A simple rinse under a running tap is not enough. The American Dental Association suggests that you brush the mouth guard with a toothbrush and toothpaste after each wearing to remove debris and bacteria that lives in your mouth. Follow up by rinsing it with soapy water, and then clear water. Some researchers recommend soaking mouth guards in antimicrobial solutions – check with your dentist or with the manufacturer of your mouth guard to see what cleaning processes and products they recommend.

Dry your mouth guard gently and then store it a clean, well- ventilated protective case. Make sure to clean the case regularly too, you can use the same process as you use to clean your mouth guard. Make sure the case is dry before you use it for storage. Dampness is conducive to bacteria and mold growth.

Rinse your mouth guard with cool water before using it. Avoid exposing it to high temperatures as this may cause the mouth guard to warp – so no hot water washings or leaving it in the car or anywhere that it may be exposed to heat.

When to Replace a Mouth Guard?

When you see signs of wear – like cracks and dimples in the surface of your previously smooth mouth guard – its time to get a new one.

If you have a custom-made mouth guard, your dentist may be able to give it a deep clean in an ultrasonic machine, smooth the surface and repair cracks.

Over-the-counter mouth guards are best retired at the end of a sports season, or – if you participate in sports year-round – as soon as the mouth guard starts to show signs of heavy wear.

Cracks and other surface blemishes can provide a place for bacteria and mold to fester, away from the reach of your toothbrush. That’s the primary reason to retire a mouth guard. Kids may also need new mouth guards to properly fit their growing jaws and teeth.

Protecting Smiles All Year Long

Wearing a mouth guard during sports is just part of what you need to do to protect your teeth. Good oral hygiene and regular dental care is the best way to keep your smile healthy and beautiful. Dental insurance and dental savings plans make going to the dentist for regular preventative care affordable. And should you or your child experience an injury to your teeth or gums, it’s critical to get to the dentist as soon as possible for the best chance of saving the tooth and preventing problems that can plague you for years. Dental savings plans, unlike traditional dental insurance, activate quickly and don’t impose long waiting periods before you can get treatment.

Dental Emergency: No Insurance and Toothaches Fill the ER

Are you delaying dental care due to cost? A recent report suggests just how painful, and costly this decision could be, due to the number of individuals with no dental insurance in the United States who are getting emergency dental care at the ER.

A study by the American Dental Association found that every 15 seconds a patient comes into the ER for a dental emergency. The ADA estimates that 79% of the visits could have been better addressed by a visit to the dentist.

Emergency rooms don’t fix dental problems; they just provide care for infections and – in some cases – medication for pain management. In the very few emergency rooms that have a dentist on duty, a patient might be able to have a diseased tooth extracted. But restorative care such as crowns, root canals, and other services are not provided. Patients will still need to see a dentist to deal with the cause of their dental distress, or to get missing teeth replaced. So the end result is a bill from the emergency room, on top of the costs of the necessary visit to the dentist.

Dental Care And Your Health

It’s also important to remember that dental disease affects more than just your smile. Poor oral hygiene is also associated with chronic infections, diabetes, heart and lung disease, and pregnancy complications. Nutrition is also affected, due to the inability to chew healthy foods like fresh fruits and vegetables.

According to the ADA, nationwide:

  • 29 percent of low-income adults report that the condition of their mouth and teeth affects their ability to interview for a job.
  • More than two out of five low-income adults report difficulty biting and chewing because of the condition of their mouth and teeth.
  • Nearly one in four report they have reduced participation in social activities because of oral health issues.
  • Lack of access to dental care is a particular issue for low income adults, but half of all high-income adults say they expect to lose some of their teeth as they age. (Among low-income adults 74 percent expect to lose teeth).
  • Cost is the top reason for not visiting the dentist more frequently among all age and income groups, including high-income adults with dental insurance.
  • Other reasons for not seeing a dentist include not having dental insurance, fear of dental work, embarrassment over the condition of one’s teeth, not having a dentist or not having the time to see a dentist.

Affordable Dental Care

The best way to control dental care costs and stay healthy is to see a dentist regularly – no matter whether your teeth are in (seemingly) great shape or you currently have a mouthful of broken, decayed teeth.

For those who are embarrassed to get care now after years of neglecting their teeth – any good dentist will welcome you and make you feel great about taking the first step towards better dental health. If you’re afraid of getting dental care, look for a dentist who specializes in working with nervous or dental-phobic patients.

Don’t have a dentist? Check out this handy dentist search tool.

No time to see the dentist? Consider the fact that you’ll spend much more time in the dentist’s chair getting expensive care to fix the problems that will occur if you neglect your teeth for a few years.

How To Get Affordable Dental Care

Another brief from the ADA Health Policy Institute found that dental insurance isn’t the answer for many people – that 69.0 percent of adults pay more for dental insurance and their copayments than the actual cost of their care. So, don’t let lack of insurance keep you from the dentist!

Some options to get low-cost dental care include:

Dental Schools: Local dental schools offer preventive dental care to the public by supervised students for free or at discounted prices. Remember, taking care of your teeth before it turns into a problem is key.

Free Clinics/Health Centers: Based on an individual’s ability to pay for dental care, these community programs also offer discounted or free services. You can also contact the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), the nation’s primary resource for uninsured citizens or those who are at high risk of developing health problems if they don’t get medical/dental care ASAP.

Dental Savings Plans: The affordable, sensible alternative to dental insurance, these plans are typically priced at half the cost of a dental insurance policy. Dental savings plan members save 10%-60% on dental care from a nationwide network of quality dentists, paying their reduced fee directly to the dentist. Unlike insurance, with a dental savings plan there is no paperwork to file, no pre-authorizations required before getting treatment and no annual spending limit.

And most plans activate within 72-hours of purchase (some activate within 24-hours), providing a cost-saving option when dental care is urgently needed.

How Popcorn Can Cause Gum Abscesses

Popcorn can be a healthy snack: The puffy kernels themselves are unprocessed whole grains, containing plenty of fiber, and even some antioxidants. And – if you don’t overload your popcorn with butter, oil or salt – it’s low in fat, calories and sodium, and it fills you up, too. So, what’s not to like about this “ideal snack?” Ask your periodontist or dental hygienist that question, and they may reply with just two words: gum abscess.

What Is a Gum Abscess?

Let’s hope you’ve never had a periodontal (gum) abscess; but if you have, you may already be familiar with the swelling, irritation and pain it can cause. These symptoms result from the inflammation and pressure that builds up in a pus-filled sac, which can develop rapidly underneath the gum line. Left untreated, this simmering bacterial infection often results in intense discomfort, and can eventually lead to tooth loss.

What Causes a Gum Abscess To Form?

One cause is untreated periodontal disease. Another is food particles or foreign objects that become lodged in the tight spaces between the teeth and gums. And, according to many dental health professionals, there’s one foreign object that appears to be the culprit more often than any other, especially in younger people. You guessed it: popcorn hulls.

Popcorn Abscesses

Why do these hulls, or husks, have such a tendency to get trapped under the gums? One reason may be that the tough, rounded shells coating the kernels (which are the very things that cause the corn to pop) seem to conform to the rounded shape of the tooth’s crown. It’s easy for them to slip into the tiny gap between teeth and gums, which dentists call the sulcus or “pocket”. Once they are there, it’s extremely hard to remove them at home, whether you use a toothbrush, floss, or a toothpick; they seem to stick like suction cups to the tooth surfaces.

While popcorn hulls are frequently associated with gum abscesses, they aren’t the only thing that can cause them. Fingernail fragments (from nail biting), wooden splinters (pencil chewing), and other foreign objects can result in the same problem. So if you think you may have a gum abscess, what should you do?

Treating a Dental Abscess

Seek a dentist’s help right away; while it may look scary, an abscess often responds to treatment very rapidly. X-rays and special dental instruments can be used to find and remove the source of the irritation, and draining fluid from the abscess generally eases the pain. A warm salt-water rinse can be used to soothe inflamed tissues. Occasionally, antibiotics or other medications may be prescribed.

Does this mean you should stop eating popcorn? Not necessarily—but you should be aware of this potential issue, and pay attention to any unexplained pain in your gums, teeth or jaw. What seems like a toothache might turn out to be an abscess starting to form—a condition you will want to keep a close eye on.

And if budget constraints are keeping you from getting the dental care you need, consider getting a dental savings plan.

An affordable alternative to traditional dental insurance, dental savings plans, also known as dental discount plans, offer plan members savings of 10-60% on a wide variety of dental treatments. To find out more about dental plans