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On 24 February the ISEH played host to a workshop to discuss the findings of a recent study into the role of oral health in performance in professional football. The study, the largest ever in the sport, was undertaken by researchers at the UCL Eastman Dental Institute (EDI) as part of their ongoing research programme into oral health in elite sport. Eight professional football clubs participated in the study, including five from the Premier League. This participation has enabled the researchers to carry out a representative study of oral health characteristics within senior professional football squads.

The workshop was facilitated by Professor Ian Needleman, the research lead from UCL EDI, with contributions from colleagues at the ISEH and UCL, as well medical and dental staff from participating football clubs, many of whom attended. Following presentation of the research findings, which will be published in full during 2015, participants discussed how to take forward the work in order to improve the oral health of both today’s footballers and the next generation. The key questions asked were: 

  • What are the implications of the study for the performance and wellbeing of professional footballers?
  • What are the implications for their oral health care, and what should be the next steps towards implementation of good practice?

Both previous studies of athletes at the London Olympics, and a symposium held in 2014 on oral health in sport, have suggested that good oral health supports better performance. The current study shows that this is also the case in football.

As one doctor put it, looking into a footballer’s mouth can tell you a great deal about their lifestyle. However, players’ lifestyles, with busy training and playing schedules, can act as a barrier to good oral health care. Reactive care, in response to toothache or another acute event, is often the norm. A suggestion made at the workshop was to make dental services, in common with other medical and rehabilitation services, available on-site.

Moreover, dental care provision currently falls outside the remit of clubs’ medical insurance policies; footballers have to arrange treatment themselves, which may lead to it being de-prioritised. In football academies, where young players might have the chance to develop good oral health habits as well as footballing skills, oral healthcare is a matter for young players and their families rather than clubs. The option of good oral healthcare provision forming part of academies’ accredited standards, alongside general good medical practice, could be explored.

To promote a culture of oral health promotion, dentists were encourage to communicate with key stakeholders such as players, welfare officers, nutritionists and physiotherapists; club doctors were seen as a key link. Regular screening was seen as a way of gathering data as the basis for planning further intervention: as players often move around between clubs, the establishment of a ‘dental passport’ was suggested.

Building on the workshop, the research team are hoping to strengthen links with the football medical community to look at ways of implementing aspects of good practice identified in the study and at the workshop.

The ISEH is strongly supportive of this programme, which echoes its aims of building links between clinicians and sports clubs and organisations, in order to identify and implement best practice in managing performance and maintaining health.