Editor’s Note: The advice below is not one-size-fits-all. If you are experiencing tooth pain — stemming from exercise or other reasons — please consult your dental professional.
When it comes to cavities and holes in your teeth, there are the usual suspects to blame: inconsistent or shoddy brushing, soda, sugar, donuts… But could functional fitness also be at fault? There’s some belief that some forms of strength training and functional fitness/CrossFit®-style training methods may actually causing the holes in our teeth our cavities love to fill. But is there truth to that?
Let’s backtrack to last Wednesday morning. Tuesday had been filled with fitness: I’d taken the 12:30 noon CrossFit class and after closing up the box I work at, deadlifted for a 1 rep max PR. So getting out of bed that next morning took some serious effort. When my alarm went off I shuffled to the bathroom to brush my teeth. After rinsing out the toothpaste, I reached for the floss (yes, seriously) and opened up to saw away.
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That’s when I saw it: a fruit-fly-sized hole in my tooth. Completely colorless-and pain-free, a drill-like hole had made home in one of my teeth in the back-right corner of my mouth. I grabbed a toothpick from the kitchen and stuck it into the hole, and 3 millimeters of wood went in, the rest of the toothpick standing tall in mouth without my holding. Yep, that hole was not shallow. There was still no pain, but the proof was there: my chomper was wrecked. And unless I wanted the hole to turn into a painful cavity, I needed to get that little ditty filled, and quick. So I googled “Brooklyn Dentists” (that’s how you adult, right?) booked an appointment for an hour later at the closest shop, and showed up ready to be half-mouthed numb and hole-less.
Decked out in “I work at a CrossFit box” gear (think: leggings, lifting tank, and Nano’s) I laid down in the chair and opened up my mouth for the Dentist who, noticing my shirt, said, “I see a lot of [strength] athletes who come in with similar tooth damage.” If the man hadn’t been knuckle-deep in my mouth, I likely would have rolled my eyes, but he continues, “All the gritting and teeth-grinding you guys do while lifting is causing holes like this one.”
The next hour was a mess of needles, novocaine, tooth concrete, and my general hatred of going to the dentist, but the fix was easy enough. By 11am my mouth was as good as new. But as I hopped on the L-train to head back to the box, I had to wonder… are functional fitness athletes really more prone to certain oral problems than the rest of the population?
After interviewing two other dentists, the answer is more complicated than a simple “yes” or “no.” Here’s what you need to know:
First, About The Teeth
Let’s start with the basics. Teeth are made out of a number of different tissues like pulp, enamel, and cementum and are actually the hardest substance in our body, explains Ann Sagalyn, Vice President and Dentist at Avon Village Family Dentistry. When you take a substance as hard and strong as a tooth and grind it against that same substance, there is going to be damage. A little tooth-on-tooth action can cause cracks or holes in the teeth which can ultimately lead to big crack causing a piece of tooth to come off, which is a real issue, explains Sagalyn.
But just like there are different kinds of diamonds of varying toughness, there are different toughnesses of teeth. “The porousness and softness of teeth will vary person to person,” says Sagalyn, which means that there is no be all end all rule for how damageable teeth are.
“In teeth, there are natural hills and valleys that should be there. In everybody, those wear down over time from eating. But grinding tooth against tooth causes those natural divots to wear down in young or younger people,” adds Nicole Coronato RDH from Dental Plus Dental Center. Not only is this kind of grinding damage for the teeth themselves, but it can also cause the gums to recede, teeth to fracture, headaches, and overdeveloped facial muscles, she explains. Symptoms such as low hills and valleys, over developed jaw muscles, and complaints of headache are what Coronato looks at to diagnose someone as a tooth grinder.
So Does Functional Fitness Cause Holes?
It’s a natural tendency to clench your teeth when you’re lifting weights, explains Coronato. All that pressure can wear down the enamel on your teeth, and even crack them causing tiny holes like the one I had in my tooth. The holes can quickly fill with hard-to-get-out food, which turns the once harmless hole into a full-blown cavity, she adds.
Your fix? “If you bite down and grind on your teeth while you weight lift, consider wearing a mouthguard to keep from getting holes in your teeth,” says Coronato.
Simple over the counter mouth guards that you boil and bite work great, or you can have your dentist make you a custom one which will fit better, she explains. If you’re not sure if you grind, Coronato suggests working out with a mouthguard for a week just so you can see that damage that is being done to an appliance. After a week, if you should be wearing a mouthguard when train, you’ll be to see the mouthguard shred just slightly.
But grinding isn’t just a habit of the functional fitness-inclined, it’s a habit people can develop when they are under any duress, physical or emotional, says Coronato, who adds that it’s not unusual to meet someone who grinds their teeth while stressed or even in their during a nightmare. Some dentists prescribe a mouth guard to those you grind in other areas of their life as well because instead of putting the stress of grinding on your teeth, the mouthguard absorbs the stress which saves the teeth from the harshness of their own material.
But Watch What You’re Drinking
No mouthguard will save your teeth from the damage of high-sugar sports drinks though, warns Sagalyn. Due to their high sugar, acid, and additive content, prolonged consumption of these types of beverages could lead to erosive tooth wear, according to a study presented at the International Association for Dental Research. Which is another reason why athletes maybe shouldn’t incorporate sugary sports drinks into their mid and post-workout fuel unless they’ve literally just run a marathon.
And Other Advice Your Dentist Has Probably Told You
When it comes to other suggestions for good oral health, none are specific to CrossFitters or Olympic Weightlifters, explains Sagalyn. Products such as fluoride rinses for adults will help add a layer of strength to the tooth, while products like electric toothbrushes will better clean the tooth, she explains. Similarly, just as we would advise against sucking on lemons and drinking lemon water for the non-athlete, athletes should limit the amount of oranges they eat to refuel and lemon-water they drink, she adds, because the acid of the citrus fruits demineralizes the teeth over time. Coronato agrees that enamel strengthen toothpaste isn’t a bad idea.
The takeaway? Brush well, often, and preferably electric. Floss, avoid acidic and sugary drinks or food, and if you grind your teeth in or out of the gym, consider wearing a mouthguard.
Editors note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein and in the video are the authors and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.
Featured image: @kelskiel on Instagram