Recent evidence has shown that changes in saliva caused by exercise can lead to poor dental health in the form of tooth decay, cavities, and even gum disease. Dental health, sport, and exercise medicine experts from the United Kingdom and North America have released The Consensus Statement to shed light on poor dental health among athletes and how it is impacted by training and performance.

"With clear psychosocial impacts of oral health, it would be surprising if training and performance were not affected in those athletes with poor oral health," the authors of the study said in a statement. "To achieve a sustained effect, oral health should be embedded within other aspects of health promotion, taking into account the structural issues and inter-relationship of athletes within their sport and peer networks. National sport funders and policy organizations should take a lead in integrating such an approach."

Researchers from the UK and North America conducted a thorough review of published evidence, including 39 studies on elite or professional sports men and women. Among the effects of poor dental health experienced by elite or professional athletes, 15 to 75 percent suffer from tooth decay, up to 15 percent are affected by moderate to severe gum disease, 36 to 85 percent deal with enamel erosion, and five to 39 percent are treated for pericoronitis/impacted molars.

Around 14 to 57 percent of athletes in high-risk sports reported dental damage caused by trauma. While it was no surprise that around two-thirds of athletes who sustained trauma to their teeth reported adverse effects, around 40 percent said that their poor dental health “bothered” them and affected their quality of life. Between one in 20 and one in five also said their poor dental health had an effect on their performance. Performance woes experienced by athletes with poor dental health was likely the result of pain, trouble sleeping and eating, systemic inflammation, and a problem with confidence.

As to what causes poor dental health among athletes, the research team cited various contributing factors related to their diet, including a diet high in carbohydrates and acidic sports drinks that break down enamel. The impact of these contributing factors can be exasperated by a dry mouth during performance. Eating disorders, especially among sports where body weight becomes an important part of competition (i.e. boxing, wrestling, gymnastics, and long distance running), can also cause significant damage to an athlete’s teeth.

Source: Needleman I, Ashley P, Fine P, et al. Oral health and elite sport performance. British Journal of Sports Medicine. 2014.