The experts from Britain and North America reviewed 39 published studies into the oral health of elite or professional sportsmen and women.
Decaying teeth affected 15-75 per cent of the athletes, moderate-to-severe gum disease up to 15 per cent and enamel erosion between 36 and 85 per cent, they report in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.
The figures add to a survey carried out at the 2012 London Olympics, where 46.5 per cent of athletes admitted they had not been to the dentist in the past year, and 18 per cent said dental problems had affected their performance in the past.
“Oral health could be an easy win for athletes, as the oral conditions that can affect performance are all easily preventable,” says study co-author Ian Needleman, a professor at University College London.
Dental problems cause pain and inflammation, affect sleeping and eating, and can hit sporting confidence too, he says.
But, he adds, “simple strategies to prevent oral health problems can offer marginal performance gains that require little or no additional time or money.”
Athletes face intense dietary and training pressures, all of which take a toll on their teeth, say the researchers.
Saliva helps to protect teeth from erosion and decay, so dehydration during heavy exercise can increase the risk of oral ill-health.
Fast energy replenishment often means athletes use high-carbohydrate diets or guzzle sugary, acidic energy drinks, which without cleaning can boost the risk of tooth decay and damaged enamel.
“We do not want to demonise energy drinks and are not saying that athletes shouldn’t use them,” Needleman says.
“However, people should be aware of the risks to oral health and can take simple measures to mitigate these. For example, water or hypotonic drinks are likely to be more suitable for simple dehydration, and spit, don’t rinse, after tooth brushing.
“For sports where athletes need a lot of energy drinks, high fluoride toothpastes and mouth rinses should be considered.”
This article first appeared on the ABC.