Accidents happen. But if you're the parent of one of the 30 million kids under 14 who participate in organized youth sports, simple preventive steps can help save your child's smile and keep them off the injured list.
"Dental and facial injuries represent a high percentage of total injuries experienced in youth sports," says Dr. Sonia Gutierrez, a board-certified pediatric dentist affiliated with Kids Dentist in Grayslake.
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"From soccer and football fields to baseball diamonds, basketball courts and even the cheerleading sidelines, it's always better to prevent an injury than to try and repair one."
The National Youth Sports Foundation for Safety reports that dental injuries are the most common type of oral facial injury sustained when kids play sports and more than 5 million teeth are knocked out each year during the course of games and competition.
"Nearly 80 percent of these injuries involve the upper front teeth," explains Gutierrez, who says if a tooth does get knocked out, it's best to act quickly.
"Examine the tooth and if clean, try to put it back in the mouth. If it's dirty, do not rinse. Place it in milk as soon as possible and only touch the crown. Roots can be damaged by touch and less manipulation is best. Take your child and the tooth immediately to the dentist, preferably within 20 to 30 minutes."
Whether elite athletes or simply shooting hoops in the driveway, children are more susceptible to injury than adults. Kids ages 5 to 14 account for nearly 40 percent of all sports-related injuries.
"Taking sports safety precautions can help keep your child in the game," says Gutierrez, who says accidents from sports and outdoor activities are almost as common for kids as cavities.
To keep your child's dental safety in check, she recommends following sport-specific guidelines when it comes to safety gear and encouraging young athletes to wear a custom-fit or boil-and-bite style mouthguard for sports like football, ice hockey, lacrosse, soccer, basketball, baseball and field hockey.
"While football, lacrosse and hockey get a thumbs-up for requiring the protective equipment, it makes sense to encourage the same protection for other higher risk recreational activities like skateboarding, bicycling, rollerblading, gymnastics and even cheerleading," says Gutierrez, who says dentists estimate some 10 to 40 percent of dental injuries to teeth, tongues and lips occur while playing sports.
Protective gear like helmets and pads are standard gear for most sports, but Gutierrez says many parents simply don't think of the need to protect their child's smile with mouthguards until it's too late.
"We see all sorts of lacerations and contusions, bruising, embedded tooth fragments, chipped or fractured teeth, knocked out permanent teeth, cut or bitten tongues, broken braces and wires, and even broken jaws as a result of these injuries," she says. "Protective gear like mouthguards worn during both games and at practice can help prevent injuries to the mouth, teeth, lips, cheek and tongue and are readily available."
However, Gutierrez cautions that not all mouthguards are alike. The custom-made mouthguards made by your dentist offer the best protection, she said. Available for around $200 and generally not covered by dental insurance plans, these custom-fitted devices come in a variety of school and team colors and can last for years.
Made of soft plastic, most are designed to fit comfortably in the shape of your child's upper teeth and can protect the teeth, but also may reduce force which can cause concussions, neck injuries and jaw fractures.
Gutierrez suggests the boil-and-bite variety of mouthguards for kids with braces or children still losing baby teeth, but cautions against more uncomfortable store-shelf "stock" varieties which kids tend to discard at the first opportunity.
"It's vital the mouthguards are comfortable, or coaches and parents don't stand a chance of getting kids to keep them in their mouth during play," she notes.