Ignoring oral health could put elite athletes out of the game
When elite athletes are not performing at their best, they might consult their coach, exercise physiologist, psychologist or dietitian for answers. But their dentist?
Surprisingly, oral health professionals play a vital, but often overlooked role in ensuring our elite athletes are able to perform at their best. Unfortunately, when it comes to oral health, elite athletes tend to be poor performers. This is despite the fact that oral health problems can lead to long periods where an athlete cannot train or perform at their best.
Oral health research indicates that years of training, dedication and preparation could potentially be derailed by common, yet mostly preventable oral health conditions.
A study carried out during the 2012 London Olympics evaluated the oral health of 302 participating athletes from around the globe. It found that 55% of athletes presented with dental caries and 45% with dental erosion and periodontal disease (76% with gingivitis and 15% periodontitis).
More than 40% of participating athletes said they were bothered by their oral health. Interestingly, 28% said their oral health impacted their quality of life and 18% said it impacted their training and performance.
While the most common problems reported in the study (dental caries, erosion and periodontal disease) can mostly be prevented, almost half of the participants said they had not had an oral health examination or hygiene care in the previous year.
The same study indicated a number of potential causes for these oral health challenges. They include poor diet, frequent intake of carbohydrates, overuse of sugary sport drinks, decreased saliva flow during exercise, exercise-induced immune suppression, lack of general knowledge about oral health, access to preventative care and how athletes prioritise their time.
So, what can elite athletes and their support teams do to manage their oral health and its impact on their performance? Much of the oral pain and frustration experienced by elite athletes can be overcome by a commitment to some simple preventative measures.
When it comes to oral health, sports people need to follow the same training regime as the rest of the population. This includes:
- Maintain a healthy diet
- Brush twice a day with a fluoride toothpaste
- Drink tap water – in most parts of Australia it contains fluoride that strengthens teeth
- Use a fluoride toothpaste
- Visit your oral health professional regularly for a check-up.
This last point is key. Oral health assessment should be a component of every athlete’s routine medical care. Talented young athletes should include oral health care and check-ups into their annual training plan from an early age to help prevent future complications.
Given the substantial financial investment that individuals, their families and governments allocate to the pursuit of sporting success, it is critical that all preventable health bases are covered as elite athletes embark on their journey towards sporting glory.
The path to becoming an elite athlete requires enormous time, effort and dedication. Let’s ensure that mostly preventable health barriers do not put our athletes out of the game.
 Needleman I; Ashely P; Petrie A; et al. Oral health and impact on performances of athletes participating in the London 2012 Olympic Games: a cross-sectional study. British Journal of Sports Medicine 2013; 47:1054-1058.
Dr Louise McCuaig is Senior Lecturer in Health and Physical Education at The University of Queensland, School of Human Movement Studies and a representative of the Australian Council of Health, Physical Education and Recreation (ACHPER). She is a founding member of the Oral Health Advisory Panel, advocating for increasing and improving the ways that oral and general health are incorporated into school curriculums across Australia.
The Oral Health Advisory Panel (OHAP), is a group of independent healthcare professionals with the aim of raising awareness of the importance of good oral health and its impact on general wellness. The Panel aims to take oral health beyond the dental clinic.
Follow the Oral Health Advisory Panel via twitter @OHAPanel to stay up to date with practical advice on good oral health habits.