The training regimen for any Olympic athlete is intense, but getting oral health into shape is usually not part of the routine. However, new research examining the impact of 2012 Olympic athletes’ oral health may now make the toothbrush as important as athletic shoes.

The study, led by Professor Ian Needleman of the University College London Eastman Dental Institute, was published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.

He and his team recruited 302 athletes in total from the London 2012 athletes’ village to take part in the study, which involved an oral health check-up and a personal assesment of the impact oral health had on their quality of life and athletic training and performance.

The majority of the athletes were from Africa, the Americas and Europe, and they represented 25 sports, with 34.9% from track and field, 14% from boxing and 11.4% from hockey.

Researchers found that 55% of the athletes had dental caries, which is tooth decay. Of this group, 41% of them had tooth decay into the dentine, which means it is reversible.

However, more than 75% of the participants had gingivitis, which is an early stage of gum disease, and 15% had signs of periodontis, which is an irreversible gum infection.

Prof. Needleman says:

Oral health is important for wellbeing and successful elite sporting performance. It is amazing that many professional athletes – people who dedicate a huge amount of time and energy to honing their physical abilities – do not have sufficient support for their oral health needs, even though this negatively impacts on their training and performance.”

The researchers note that many of the sportswomen and men who competed in the London 2012 Olympics had poor levels of oral health that were similar to the problems seen in the most disadvantaged populations.

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The researchers found that 18% of the 2012 Olympic athletes surveyed said poor oral health affected their training or performance.

Almost half of the Olympic athletes who took part in the study had not attended a dental exam or hygiene appointment in the previous year, the researchers say, and 8.7% of them had never been to the dentist.

The proportion of athletes who said they were “bothered by oral health issues” totaled 42%, and 28% said it affected their quality of life.

Additionally, 18% of the athletes said they believed poor oral health was affecting their training or performance in a negative way.

Prof. Needleman believes that an oral health assessment should be part of every single athlete’s normal medical care, adding:

“If we are going to help them optimize their level of performance, we need to concentrate on oral health promotion and disease prevention strategies to facilitate the health and wellbeing of all our elite athletes.”

The researchers hypothesize that links between oral health, wellbeing and performance may be due to pain from oral disease, as well as inflammation and a decreased self-confidence.

They point to previous studies’ findings that athletes have poor oral health, which could be linked to frequent carbohydrate intake and reduced immune function from intensive training.

Prof. Needleman told Medical News Today that the mechanisms behind the impact on the Olympians’ performance could also be relevant for the general public:

Clearly, pain and discomfort from tooth decay, dental erosion, periodontal (gum) disease or infected wisdom teeth will affect performance. We see psychological impacts from, for example, bleeding gums, bad odors and poor appearance.

These have well-documented effects on confidence. It has also been shown that infection in the mouth, for instance from periodontal disease, increases the levels of inflammation in the rest of the body and this can impair performance as well as increase risk of injury.”

He also said that these conditions are preventable through regular dental care and general maintenance of the oral environment.

So, whether you are an athlete heading to Rio for 2016 or a member of the general public, picking up a toothbrush may improve your performance on the track or in the gym.

Medical News Today recently reported on a study that revealed HPV infection is linked to poor oral health.