Do You Need a Custom Mouthguard?

by Suzanne Carroll

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Dentists recommend night guards to treat a range of dental conditions. Photo: William R. Hummer, DDS ©2019

Steph Curry and Lebron James use them, but does that mean you and your child need them as well? Many people who participate in athletics wear mouthguards to prevent oral injuries, and not just those who play at the highest levels of competition. It’s estimated that 10 to 20 percent of all sports injuries affect the face, mouth or jaw, making it prudent for those who play contact sports to protect their teeth and gums. However, not all mouthguards offer the same level of protection. Additionally, dentists recommend mouthguards to treat a variety of conditions.

What Are Mouthguards?

Mouthguards are protective devices placed over the teeth to prevent injury during sports or to treat a medical condition, such as bruxism (teeth grinding) or temporomandibular joint disorder (TMJ). They’re made from a variety of materials and can be purchased at a store or custom-made by a dentist.

Store-bought Mouthguards

Stock mouthguards: These devices come in standard sizes and are sold at most sporting goods stores and pharmacies. Made of rubber or plastic, they’re inexpensive and ready to use right after purchase. However, dentists caution that stock mouthguards won’t distribute the force of an impact evenly across the teeth and gums due to their imprecise fits. Stock mouthguards require the wearer to limit jaw movement, which makes them a poor choice for athletes who need to communicate frequently with fellow players.

Boil-and-bite mouthguards: As with stock mouthguards, boil-and-bite devices are inexpensive and available at most sporting goods stores. Before use, the wearer boils the device to soften the plastic and then bites down to make an impression of their teeth. With a more precise fit than stock mouthguards, boil-and-bite mouthguards offer somewhat better protection. However, consistent use will quickly wear down these devices.

Custom-Made Mouthguards

Dentists can create custom-made mouthguards for patients looking for more reliable protection for their teeth and gums. The dentist will first create a stone cast of the patient’s teeth. This individualized impression will allow the dentist or dental laboratory to create a device that’s unique to the patient and their needs. Because custom-made devices fit more snugly, athletes have more jaw freedom and can communicate freely. Those considering custom-made mouthguards should note that they’re significantly more expensive than those purchased over-the-counter. Additionally, it’s rare that insurance will cover the cost.

Vacuum-formed mouthguards: These devices are formed from a single sheet of thermoplastic that’s heated, placed on the mold and suctioned into its final form. These mouthguards offer better protection than those found in stores, but they tend to lose their shape and efficacy over time.

Pressure-laminated mouthguards: These mouthguards offer athletes the best protection and also come at the highest cost. Thin layers of thermoplastic are heated and cast into the mold of the teeth, then fused together under extreme pressure. The end result is a device that fits well, offers better cushioning and endures over time.

Night Guards 

If you have a habit of grinding your teeth at night or suffer from TMJ, your dentist may recommend using a night guard while you sleep. As with mouthguards used for athletics, consumers can either purchase inexpensive night guards over-the-counter or have their dentists create customized devices that will last longer and offer increased protection.

Custom night guards are created by taking a mold of the patient’s teeth and then casting a heat-processed acrylic material to produce the individualized device. Unlike sports mouthguards, night guards are clear and more rigid, enabling them to withstand habitual grinding for years.

Caring for your custom mouthguard or night guard

If you’ve invested in a custom mouthguard or night guard, it’s important to properly care for the device. When not in use, it should be kept in the ventilated storage case provided by your dentist, which will protect it from exterior damage while limiting its exposure to humidity.

Our mouths contain a host of bacteria, so it’s essential to rinse your custom-made device after each use. Mouthguards used for athletics should be thoroughly cleaned with cool water and liquid soap; hot water, toothpaste and denture cleaners can damage sports mouthguards. Night guards, on the other hand, are made from different materials and should be cleaned daily with a toothbrush and toothpaste.

Wearers should bring their custom mouthguards to their regular dental appointments so the dentist can inspect the device and give it a deep cleaning.