Health Team

Dentists Hope Mouth Guards Keep Athletes Smiling

Posted January 11, 2007 6:07 p.m. EST

— Missing teeth often tell a story of game injuries on the field, court or ice, but the North Carolina Dental Society is trying to get more high school athletes to wear mouth guards to protect their smiles.

North Carolina high schools require mouth guards in some sports, such as football, ice hockey and lacrosse, but not in sports like soccer, wrestling or basketball.

"Those are the sports we're primarily targeting to try to get those athletic directors to see the need and to help their athletes," said Ashley Shaaf, a student at the University of North Carolina School of Dentistry who volunteers in the Dental Society campaign to get more custom-made mouth guards for high school athletes.

Dentists say custom mouth guards are the best way to prevent a variety of facial injuries.

"You get injuries to the cheeks, to the tongue. You get broken jaws, and they protect against all of those," said Dr. Bill Vann, a pediatric dentist at the UNC School of Dentistry.

Mouth guards cost about $100, which is more than many athletes can afford and more than most athletic departments are willing to pay. So the Dental Society is underwriting the cost to make them more affordable.

"We provide these custom-made mouth guards to the student athletes for about $10," Shaaf said.

The girls basketball team at Orange High School in Hillsborough has taken part in the program.

"When they came in, they got impressions (of our teeth), and then we got them back about a week later," player Raven Watlington said.

Watlington said it took some time for the players to get used to the devices, butshe said she and her teammates understand it's worth the inconvenience.

"A concussion could happen or missing teeth, and I don't want to have any missing teeth. I try to wear it as much as I can," player Diamond Villines said.

Some people might think mouth guards make them look unattractive or uncool, but Vann said a variety of colors have been added to mouth guards to make them more acceptable. Also, because they are more visible on college and professional athletes on television, they have become more fashionable among young athletes, he said.

Less expensive mouth guards can be purchased over-the-counter like the traditional "boil-and-bite" type. But Vann said custom mouth guards made in a dentist's office are more comfortable and offer better protection. The devices can even be customized for athletes who need to bark out signals in a game, such as quarterbacks and point guards, so they cover the teeth but not the palate.