Clenching a regulator combined with pressure underwater can mean dental problems and scuba diving go hand in hand.

In a report recently published in the British Dental Journal, 41 percent of surveyed divers said that they had experienced dental problems underwater. Vinisha Ranna, a student at the University of Buffalo’s school of dental medicine, led the study, entitled “Prevalence of Dental Problems in Recreational SCUBA Divers.”

Per Ranna, the clenching action required to keep a scuba regulator in place combines with changing pressure to exacerbate latent dental issues. This means dental problems and scuba diving often go hand in hand.

Dental Problems and Diving

Ranna, a certified rescue diver, thought of the study in 2013, when she first learned to dive. During her introductory dives, she experienced barodontalgia, an acute toothache caused by the increase in pressure underwater. Curious to find out how common her symptoms were, Ranna began to research the effects of diving on dental health. She soon discovered that existing studies focused solely on military divers, and so decided to study recreational divers.

After crafting her survey, Ranna distributed it online to 100 certified divers. Potential candidates had to be healthy, over 18 years old, and free from decongestant medication. Of the 41 percent that reported dental problems, the most common issue was barodontalgia, which accounted for 42 percent of affected respondents. Participants also reported jaw and dental pain, caused by clenching the regulator mouthpiece too tightly. The latter problem is especially prevalent in cold-water divers, inexperienced divers, or those who feel nervous underwater.

Results of the Study

Five people complained of a loosened crown, while one unfortunate respondent suffered a shattered filling. Ranna also noticed that of those surveyed, dive professionals seemed significantly more susceptible to dental problems. She hypothesized that this is likely because instructors spend quite a bit of time in shallow water, where they most acutely feel pressure changes.

The pilot study’s limited sample means that its results offer more of an informed indication than conclusive proof. But Ranna hopes to build upon her initial findings with a study group of over 1,000 divers. In the meantime, she asserts that regular dental check-ups are especially important for divers. “An unhealthy tooth underwater would be much more obvious than on the surface…100 feet underwater is the last place you want to be with a fractured tooth.” Those who have recently undergone a dental procedure should also get a checkup before diving.

Perhaps in the future, new divers will have to answer questions about dental health on the compulsory medical questionnaire. In addition, scuba-equipment manufacturers might develop mouthpiece designs that further reduce the need for clenching. This might make it easier to minimize the effects of changing pressure. For now, the study’s results suggest that regular dentist visits should become part of our scuba-health routine.

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