Training in combat sports such as Muay Thai or Mixed Martial Arts has become as commonplace as ever over the last decade. For many of us, it is a fun and dynamic way to build up a sweat or get in shape. Eventually, many practitioners want to progress from simply drilling techniques into something more contact heavy but much more exciting, live sparring.
As an avid Muay Thai practitioner myself, I’ve had my fair share of knocks and bruises during sparring sessions. Without proper protection, serious injuries to your face and teeth are bound to happen. Studies have shown that the prevalence of dental and facial injuries in combat sports including boxing, kickboxing, Muay Thai, wrestling and Jiu-jitsu can be as high as 30%¹.
Mouthguards are an essential piece of protective gear to reduce oral injuries. It can act as a buffer from trauma, providing protection for the lips, gums, cheeks and tongue. It also prevents fractured or knocked out teeth by cushioning the teeth from direct frontal blows to the upper jaw or indirectly from a blow to the lower jaw, which can cause the lower teeth to slam against the upper teeth. Unlike some other injuries, a single traumatic injury to the teeth may never heal completely and it can create a lifetime of costly dental treatments, such as dental implants.
Most evidence suggests that the concept of a mouthguard was initiated in the sport of boxing. Originally, boxers use to wear mouthguards made out of cotton, tape, sponge or small pieces of wood by biting the material between their teeth².
It wasn’t until the 1890s that London-based dentist Woolf Krause created the first “gum shield” using gutta percha, a natural rubber resin³. Woolf’s son Philip, a dentist himself and amateur boxer refined it years later to create the first re-usable gum shield.
In 1948, Rodney O.Lilyquist a Los Angeles based dentist utilized a transparent acrylic resin to create an splint that could cover and protect both the upper and lower rows of teeth. The Journal of the American Dental Association featured O.Lilyquist’s design, which helped to solidify the place of the mouthguard in the sportsworld. By 1960, the ADA would recommend mouthguards composed of latex for use in all contact sports.
Types of mouthguard
Pre-fabricated or stock mouthguards
Pre-fabricated mouthguards are available at most sporting good stores, come in limited sizes and are the least expensive. They tend to fit loosely over the wearer’s teeth, as they have limited to no retention, thus offering the least amount of protection.
Boil-and-bite mouthguards are placed in hot water first according to the manufacturer’s instructions. When the lining has softened the wearer bites into the mouthguard to allow it to form to the shape of their teeth. These mouthguards may not conform completely to the person’s bite and can be uncomfortable to wear. Additionally, boil and bite mouthguards are usually thinner compared to custom made mouthguards which in turn offers less protection.
Custom made mouthguards
Custom made mouthguards are fabricated by the dentist and dental technician using dental impressions or 3d scans. A 3d scan will take images of your mouth to create a clear and highly accurate virtual replica of the teeth and gums.
A combination of factors including the greater area of contact of the mouthguard over the teeth and gums as well as adequate thickness provide the cushioning (shock absorption) effect which is extremely crucial in protecting the wearer from the high forces of impact sustained during combat sports.
Due to their customized fit, these mouthguards do not interfere with breathing. Looser fitting boil and bite or prefabricated mouthguards will require wearers to modify their breathing to accommodate the mouthguard. This can inevitably mean reduced oxygen uptake and reduced performance. Additionally, a poorly fitting mouthguard will impede speech and can even wedge at the back of the throat at impact which could be life threatening.
Due to the aggressive nature of both offense and defense of combat sports, it is important to bear in mind even a light sparring session has a risk of injury. It takes very little force to cause a lot of damage to your teeth and jaw, so train smartly and wear a custom fitted mouthguard!
How to care for mouthguards
- Do not chew or alter the mouthguard as this will affect the fit and damage it or decrease its effectiveness.
- Rinse the mouthguard with cold water or with a mouthrinse before and after each use. Avoid contact with hot water because this can cause distortion.
- Clean it with cool, soapy water and rinse thoroughly.
- Store and transport the mouthguard in a firm, perforated container to prevent damage and permit air circulation.
- Avoid high temperatures or direct sunlight to minimize distortion.
- Do not share your mouthguard with others.
- Check the condition of the mouthguard occasionally and replace it if there are perforations, tears, becomes loose or ill fitting, irritating the teeth or gums.
- They should be replaced every two to three years, earlier if cracked or significantly worn out.
- Bring your mouthguard along to your dental visit, so your dentist can assess its condition.
- Polmann H., Melo Gilberto., Reus J.C., Domingos F.L., De Souza B.D.M., Padilha A.C., Duque T.M., Porporatti A.L., & Canto G.D.L. Prevalence of dentofacial injuries amoung combat sports practitioners: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Dent Taumatol 2020 ;36(2) : p.124-140.
- Knapik J. J., Marshall S.W., Lee R.B., Darakiv S. S., Jones S. B., Mithener T.A., & Jones, B. H. Mouth guards in Sport Activities. J Sports Medicine 2007;37(2) : p.120.
- Reed, R. V. Origin and early history of the dental mouthpiece. British Dental Journal 1994 ;176 : p. 479.