This question was submitted by a general dentist: From time to time we hear claims that a mouthguard may enhance athletic performance. My question is two-fold, does that make sense from a physiological perspective and is there any evidence to support such claims?
Dr. Phillip Gardiner, Director of Health, Leisure and Human Performance Research Institute and Canada Research Chair in Physical Activity and Health Studies at the University of Manitoba, provided this quick initial response
Many researchers have indeed reported beneficial effects of mouthguards on athletic performance. Most seem to relate to power-type, although there is some evidence that endurance-type events may also benefit through a beneficial effect on gas exchange.
Emphasis in the literature has been placed on the importance of specific and customized mouthguards. Interestingly, many researchers seem to have initiated their studies to determine if there were detrimental effects of mouthguards and found the opposite.
To address the issue of “does it make sense”, it seems that “biting the bullet” using a mouthguard may ignite the same stress response seen with the “fight or flight” response, which involves increased secretion of hormones in the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) complex. These are beneficial for performance: adrenaline and noradrenaline increase blood pressure, reaction time, heart rate, and cortisol, which provides increased glucose to the brain, muscles, and other tissues. Effects may also extend to areas of the brain governing mood and arousal state.
It seems also that some of these fight or flight responses may be beneficial in the short term, but might prove detrimental in longer term, stimulating researchers to find mouthguard designs that prevent teeth from occluding or clenching under stress. In terms of hard evidence, researchers are just now beginning to understand “craniofacial neurometabolic physiology”, and ongoing studies where researchers measure performance, hormonal levels and blood flow to certain specific brain areas with specifically-designed mouthguards will provide more mechanistic answers to this obvious improvement in performance using mouthguards.
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