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Looking Beyond the Mouth: Orthodontics and Their Effect on Athletic Development

One of the defining images from this summer’s swimming World Championships was that of teen sensation Missy Franklin showing off her orthodontic gadgetry on the medal podium. 

Missy obviously did quite well with the braces, but there is far more to orthodontic intervention in the sports world than the cosmetic aspect.  Braces and other orthodontic gadgetry mark a rite of passage for many adolescents in westernized society.  Such interventions have also become more accepted for adults in recent years.   With customized mouthpieces becoming developed for non-contact sports (running, golf) there's  a groundswell of research to maximize performance in this area. 

Orthodontic decisions are often made with cosmetics in mind.  There's nothing wrong with placing the orthodontist or dentist temporarily at the top of the food chain, but everyone on an athlete’s support staff must recognize that global movement patterns interact closely with the cosmetic changes.  Even if the braces have a positive change structurally, the rest of the body must harmonize with these changes if the athlete is to perform safely in future years.  

Learning optimal control of the jaw, head, and upper spine is difficult at any age...throw pieces of metal into the mouth and the situation can get dicey!  If a kid shapes his jaw, neck, and head movement patterns with the assistance of metal in the mouth, we do a disservice to the young athlete if we just assume that the brain will figure things out along the way.  The common approach is to assume that cosmetic changes are tantamount to improved function.  While improved function may indeed be a byproduct of orthodontic changes, there's too much at stake to make this assumption without vigilant assessment.

Going back to infancy, the head evolves rapidly in humans.  Some of our first forms of movement begin with the mouth and tongue.  We also use our mouth, jaw, and head to allow for an adequate airway for respiration.  The rest of the body takes its cues from the head and neck.  The neck and the breath form an audit system for movement.  The addition and removal of orthodontics changes the body’s ability to properly audit itself for dysfunction and/or pain. 

Look at the example of shoes...If you wear highly supportive athletic shoes, it takes an adjustment period to wean yourself out of shoes or into a more minimalist shoe.  As such, we tailor our running workouts to accommodate this process.  The same level of care should take place during an adjustment into and out of orthodontic gadgetry.  There’s no one size fits all, but we owe it to athletes to do more than simply hope the brain magically resets the rest of the body.   

A word on headaches: Many kids and parents claim that braces cause headaches.   While most of the evidence is anecdotal, there is enough evidence to warrant discussion, which begs the question of whether the orthodontics cause the headaches or whether the headaches are a natural product of the oral facial development in the adolescent.  I really don’t have the answer to this question, but this sub-issue brings us back to the main theme….When significant change occurs, it behooves all those involved to adequately control for the effects of that change. 

What does it mean for coaches?  If we take a kid without the strength to support his head during exertion, he'll find a way to use the metal in his mouth if it will help.  Fortunately, there are times when the orthodontics gives the kid the feeling of stability that he never had and might never have had.  In those cases, the orthodontist makes the coach look awfully smart!  However, when the metal comes off and the kid continues to up the ante with volume and intensity, we must create our own audit systems to ensure the kid’s global movement patters have properly adjusted to the changes in the oral cavity, head, and neck. 


orthodontist Greensboro

This post is useful for an Athletic Development especially beyond their mouth. It encourages them to boost their confidence and achieve the winning smile. Thanks for posting this. -orthodontist Greensboro

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