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Better dental health 'could aid athlete performance'

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Elite athletes are letting their performance suffer because they are failing to look after their teeth properly, a group of health experts has warned.

Even simple measures such as flossing could provide the same marginal performance gains as expensive physical therapies, according to research carried out at the University College London.

“Better tooth brushing techniques and higher fluoride toothpastes could prevent the toothache and associated sleeping and training difficulties”

Ian Needleman

In a survey of London 2012 Olympic athletes, carried out by UCL, 18% said their oral health had a negative impact on their performance and 46.5% had not been to the dentist in the past year.

Lead researcher Professor Ian Needleman, of UCL’s Eastman Dental Institute, said more action needs to be taken to improve the oral health of both amateur and elite athletes, which shows “no signs of improvement”.

Eastman Dental Institute

Ian Needleman

“Oral health could be an easy win for athletes, as the oral conditions that can affect performance are all easily preventable,” he said in a report published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.

“Professional athletes and their teams spend a lot of time and money on ways to marginally improving performance, as this can make all the difference in elite sports.

“Simple strategies to prevent oral health problems can offer marginal performance gains that require little to no additional time or money,” he said.

“Things like better tooth brushing techniques and higher fluoride toothpastes could prevent the toothache and associated sleeping and training difficulties that can make the crucial difference between gold and silver,” he added.

Dr Mike Loosemore, a consultant at UCL’s Institute of Sport, Exercise and Health, who was also England’s chief medical officer at this year’s Commonwealth Games, described the warning as “important”, adding that it could have a positive effect on elite sportsmen and women.

Research found the amount of energy that athletes need for training often means they have high-carbohydrate diets and regularly use sugary, acidic energy drinks, which can contribute to decay and erosion in athletes’ teeth.

In addition, training pressures can lead to dehydration, which can also increase the risk of tooth decay.


Mike Loosemore

Professor Needleman said: “We do not want to demonise energy drinks and are not saying that athletes shouldn’t be using them.

“However, people should be aware of the risks to oral health and can take simple measures to mitigate these. For example, water or hypotonic drinks are likely to be more suitable for simple hydration, and spit don’t rinse after tooth brushing,” he said.

“For sports where athletes need a lot of energy drinks, high fluoride toothpastes and mouthrinses should be seriously considered,” he added.

He called for national sport funders and policy organisations to take the lead in ensuring that oral health is regularly assessed.


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