Should Young Athletes Wear Mouth Guards While Playing Sports?

Youth sports offers a variety of benefits to their participants, including improved self-esteem, socialization opportunities, and regular exercise.

 (photo credit: INGIMAGE)
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)
Youth sports offers a variety of benefits to their participants, including improved self-esteem, socialization opportunities, and regular exercise. For these reasons, experts generally agree that kids of all ages should be encouraged to play any and all sports they enjoy. However, many parents may not realize the level of injury risk their children are confronting every time they step onto the field.
Indeed, sports and oral injury often go hand-in-hand. Anywhere from 13-29 percent of dental injuries have something to do with sports, depending on where you get your data from. Furthermore, the American Dental Association (ADA) reports that 10-20 percent of all sports-related injuries are maxillofacial in nature and affect children or adolescents. Therefore, it is safe to conclude that sports can cause injury, and that younger athletes are at least as likely to sustain a significant oral injury as their older counterparts.
Luckily, researchers believe that the simple act of wearing a mouthguard may help mitigate or prevent oral injuries in youth athletics. This article will explore the risks associated with specific sports, as well as how a mouth guard might be able to help.
How can mouth guards help prevent or mitigate oral injuries?
At its core, a mouthguard is simply a cushion that provides some shock absorption in the event of oral trauma. An athlete is up to 60 times more likely to sustain an oral injury if they are not wearing a protective guard while they play, according to the National Youth Sports Foundation for Safety. Studies conducted by the ADA, the American Academy for Pediatric Dentistry, and the American Academy for Sports Dentistry have also shown that wearing a properly-fitted mouthguard significantly reduces orofacial injuries for years. There is a scientific consensus that mouth guards work.
That conclusion comes with two caveats, however. First, a guard must be properly-fitted to perform its best. If your young athlete has a hard time talking or consuming water while wearing their guard, the fit may not be right. Athletes with braces should also take their orthodontics into consideration when choosing a guard. Braces can dramatically increase oral injury risks, ranging from simple cheek lacerations to chipped teeth and painful root fractures. A good mouthguard will comfortably fit over braces, protecting them just as much as the wearer's teeth, gums, and lips.
What are the most dangerous sports for young athletes?
When adults think of injuries in youth athletics, their minds automatically drift toward contact sports such as football, mixed martial arts, wrestling, and lacrosse. Some of these sports are violent by nature, while others accept hard physical contact as a part of playing the game, even if it isn't the ultimate goal. Surely they must be the most dangerous, right?
These sports were once among the most dangerous, but things have changed ever since the National Federation of State High Schools mandated the use of protective mouth guards in sports such as football, lacrosse, and ice hockey. Oral injury rates for high school athletes in these sports exceeded 50% prior to the mandate, but have fallen to less than 1 percent since. Clearly, mandating the use of mouth guards has had the desired effect.
Unfortunately, sports with obvious oral injury risks are not the only sports with significant oral injury risks. Children between the ages of 7 and 12 are most likely to sustain oral injury playing baseball, a sport that probably doesn't spring to mind when you think of oral injury. Players may be hit with a batted or thrown ball, crash head-first into a wall, or even trip while running the bases. Mouth guards are seldom worn in baseball, so kids generally have nothing protecting them from these incidents.
Adolescents between the ages of 13 and 17 are most likely to sustain an oral injury playing basketball, another sport that doesn't immediately seem risky. While getting hit with the ball could lead to oral injury, most basketball-related injuries involve getting fouled or accidental contact with a defending player. This risk may be even more acute in pickup games with friends, as teenagers can get very competitive in environments with minimal supervision. Johnny probably didn't mean to elbow his friend Bobby in the face, but the latter is hurt all the same. Again, most parents don't consider mouthguards as an essential piece of basketball equipment, leaving kids exposed to significant oral injury risk.
Finally, parents need to be concerned about less organized sports. If your son or daughter regularly goes out bike-riding or skateboarding, wearing a mouthguard could help limit the damage if they fall. This is especially true for kids who are interested in learning tricks, as the learning process frequently includes a lot of spills. Sadly, many parents don't even view these activities as sports, much less sports that require the use of a mouthguard. The ADA has a list of over 60 sports where mouthguards are recommended, and some of the activities included may surprise you.
What are the best mouthguards?
Once you start looking for a great youth mouthguard, you'll quickly discover that there are a lot of options available. The cheapest products are generally bulky guards that comprise an athlete's ability to breathe and communicate, while also lacking the retentive properties you're looking for. These "stock" guards can also be dislodged easily, so they're tough to recommend.
"Mouth-fit" guards are over-the-counter products that can be molded to a specific athlete's bite, creating a better fit and offering more protection. These guards can put pressure on a child's teeth and gums if not fitted correctly, so make sure to take your time and do it right. They also lack durability, so your child may need two or even three guards to get through the season.
Finally, you can ask your child's dentist to custom-fit a guard to their mouth. These guards are generally the best in terms of fit and retention, and typically provide the best fit. 
Conclusion
Ultimately, the best guard for your athlete is the one that they actually wear on their own. Trying to force your kid to put in a mouth guard is a headache, especially if they try to take it out as soon as you're not looking. Some companies offer guards in a variety of colors and patterns to help make wearing a guard more appealing, so that's one avenue to explore if your child is resistant to the idea. Regardless, the science is clear: youth athletes should wear a protective mouthguard during every game and practice they participate in.