For Many Top Athletes, Poor Oral Health a Common Problem

Despite being faster, stronger and in peak physical condition, most Olympians wouldn’t take gold in any competition that judged best oral health. As a number of recent studies have shown, under many athletes buff exterior hides a dentist’s nightmare.

A 2013 study conducted by the University College of London’s Eastman Dental Institute found that a surprising number of athletes who participated in the 2012 Olympic Games in London listed poor oral health as a reason they didn’t perform as well as possible. A remarkable 18 percent of athletes surveyed reported that their oral health had a significant impact on their overall performance at the games.

After giving each athletes an oral examination, researchers discovered that 55 percent of those who participated in the study suffered from untreated tooth decay, 75 percent suffered from the early stages of gum disease, and 15 percent suffered from advanced gum disease, a condition known as periodontitis.

While many athletes that come from poorer developing countries may not have the same access to dental care as those from Europe and North America, the phenomenon of poor oral health among athletes extends even to the rich and famous.

At a conference on sports injuries, the International Olympic Committee’s dental director related a story that in 1984, NBA superstar Michael Jordan was nearly knocked out the gold-medal-winning game due to a “significant dental problem.” While they don’t rise to the level of famous as Michael Jordon, hundreds of athletes suffer from dental concerns that require care at every Olympic games, according to the IOC.

Physical Training Often Impacts Oral Health

To hone their bodies to perfection, athletes put themselves through intense training that requires maximum physical effort. To refuel during and after working out, many athletes consume energy and sports drinks, protein bars, and eat frequent meals throughout the day, all of which teeth don’t generally like. Excessive sweating can also cause dehydration, which reduces the amount of saliva an athlete’s mouth produces. Saliva plays a vital role in protecting the health of teeth by rinsing away harmful bacteria and restoring tooth enamel.

For example, competitive boat rowers have some of the worse cases of decay, according to the IOC, as they spend hours training in boats, needing to constantly recharge themselves by consuming beverages and snacks that contain high levels of sugar and acidity, both of which lead to tooth erosion.

Prior to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, an abscessed tooth nearly threatened to derail the Olympic hopes of British rower Alan Campbell. The infection from his tooth spread to his back and shoulder before eventually settling in Campbell’s right knee. The Olympian needed surgery two months prior to the games, seriously derailing his training regimen. Campbell finished fifth in his event and reported feeling certain he would of placed better had surgery not delayed his preparation.

While the sugars from the foods and beverages they consume negatively impacts the oral health of athletes, the IOC says that many Olympians place a lot of stress on their teeth from clenching and grinding while exerting maximum effort either in training or in the heat of competition. These habits can also wear down the health of an athlete’s teeth and worsen the damage caused by tooth decay.

In preparation to what they expect to see at the next Olympic Games, the IOC plans on having eight dental chairs, x-ray machines, surgical facilities and root-canal specialists on hand to handle any oral health needs of athletes in Rio de Janeiro.

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