This story will climb inside you, and it isn’t even first hand. Or second hand. It’s third hand.
My niece is on the varsity field hockey team of our small town high school, and this past weekend she had a game. As my brother sprinted up to catch the action already in progress, what he saw instead was a more sobering scene of inactivity. The event had already taken place. And all that remained of it were players on both sides, and coaches, and concerned families, kneeling by a young girl writhing in pain.
This isn’t the first time my brother has encountered this brand of heart-dropping father-of-an-athlete scene, just as it’s not the first time he experienced it within the past week alone.
The injury did not belong to my niece, but we are all sobered by it. Those who were there – and even those of us who were not – are able to concentrate on little else.
This story isn’t fatal, but it sure is devastating. At some point during the game, thirty-five inches of composite field hockey stick was swung backward for momentum by one of the players, the curved face of the stick’s head powering upward, inadvertently smacking an opposing player — a young beautiful girl —with the sort of velocity that wreaks immediate structural damage.
Her two front teeth were knocked clean out from the root. Her two lateral incisors were pushed into an unnatural dorsal slant. She was wearing a mouth guard. But bad mouth guards are lip service.
This past spring, I was cheering my same athlete niece on the softball field — and by the way, softballs aren’t soft. I was watching my niece pop her mouth guard in and out of her mouth before and after every play, from her position at shortstop. “It irritates her,” my brother explained.
I don’t know if my niece currently has a mouthguard that fits properly, but I’m quickly becoming an expert.
Mouth guards made their debut in the 1930s when boxers employed them for protection against swallowing teeth. In the 1970s, many college athletes began to wear mouth guards, and in the late 80s there was a study that proved that 75% of all oral-facial injuries occurred when there was no mouthguard present. Duh.
But only within the past ten years have mouth guards become mandatory equipment for high school athletes. Unfortunately not all mouth guards are created equal.
Ready-made and Boil and Bite mouth guards are available at the checkout counter of many sporting goods stores, but often do not provide the proper protection. Proper protection is considered to be 3 mm on the outer (lip and cheek) surfaces of the teeth, and 2 mm on the tongue, or inner surfaces of the teeth — which pads against both teeth and jaw injuries.
Poor fit means having to clamp down to keep the mouthguard in place, which is impossible to achieve with the element of surprise, when it matters most. And poor fit means the mouthguard doesn’t allow for proper breathing, team communication, or comfort, so it is often popped out of place momentarily, which is all the time it takes.
While proper fitting mouth guards are quite the investment, so are the teeth that will need replacing when the mouthguard fails. I urge parents of athletes to spend the money now that can help sidestep a much sadder loss later.