Do Mouthguards Really Prevent Knockouts In Combat Sports

Do mouthguards prevents knockouts Ali vs Liston.

Whether you are a fan of them or not, for many knockouts are without doubt one of the most thrilling aspects of combat sports. And while fighters train their bodies to try to avoid that fate. They are nonetheless commonplace across all professional fighting sports. So do mouthguards help to prevent knockouts?

Studies were undertaken which never claimed to prove whether or not mouthguards can help to prevent knockouts, rather as observations and not scientific fact. And so there is no solid scientific evidence for or against the premice.

Originally manufactured from gutta-percha, a naturally occurring thermoplastic. Today’s mouthguards are designed using a range of plastics and layering to achieve the desired level of protection for the mouth area.

Today they are most commonly made from a mix of polyethene/poly(vinyl acetate). And with some of the more expensive custom designs which incorporate multiple layers or laminations of material.

With essentially three options available that include stock mouthguards, the most common and cheapest type. The mouth-formed (boiled) mouthguards require the wearer to first heat them in hot water. Before placing between the teeth while soft, setting in the desired shape.

Custom made mouthguards which are exactly that. Custom designed and fitted to the user’s teeth to ensure a perfect fit. With there being clear differences in pricing as well as performance.

Obviously, any mouthguard is better than none at all. And studies have shown that the degree of protection offered correlates directly with the materials being used. As well as the thickness and the cushioning effect they can achieve.

So while many people will go for the cheaper end of the scale. Results have shown that these cheaper options do not offer the same level of protection as custom made guards.

How Does A Mouthpiece Protect You

Well, the idea behind a mouthpiece is that it first helps to protect your teeth. As teeth are front and centre of your face, they are most likely to get hit and possibly knocked out.

Man taking a direct punch to the face with a boxing glove.
Man taking a knockout punch in the face.

A mouthguard is used to try and protect them from impacts. So that you will hopefully walk away from the fight with your pearly whites fully intact. You have to remember they are not used exclusively in combat sports.

As you will be well aware of in other sports such as American football, rugby and ice hockey amongst others. Their athletes are not supposed to be kicked or punched in the head, but it does of course happen.

So the use of mouth protection here is almost exclusively to protect the teeth themselves. But the question still arises as to whether or not using a mouthguard will indeed help prevent you from being knocked out.

What Do The Studies Say

Analysis has shown that there is no clear cut evidence when it comes to the number of punches landed during a fight and the eventual outcome. As following video analysis of classic bouts, one of which ended in a fatality.

The stats in terms of punches landed did not necessarily correspond with the outcome of the fight. And so it is extremely difficult to tell when one fighter has taken too much punishment, compared to another fighter in the same position.

With reports showing that it’s not necessarily a concussion on its own that does the damage. But more so the accumulation of smaller hits over time that is responsible for the long term damage with are seeing amongst full-contact fighters.

“It’s not just the heavy punches, it’s the accumulation.”

Dr. Vincent Miele

So the question then also has to be asked as to what role do mouthguards play in whether someone is knocked out or not? Well, there have been at least two studies undertaken to find out their effectiveness.

One study by John M Stenger and others showed that their use altered the position of the lower jaw and how it then connected to the skull. Creating some distance and as a result, they believed helping to reduce the impact carried through into the brain from a punch.

While another study by JC Hickey and others, where a mouthguard was placed inside a cadaver model. Found that its use could mitigate an impact directly on the chin by up to 50%.

However, there have been some doubts cast when it comes to these results. As a live human skull will act quite differently to that of a cadaver. Along with the fact that in the experiment a fixed head was used as opposed to one which could move with the force of the impact.

So the methodology involved did bring into question some of the results. And while they have been referenced as scientific proof. The scientists involved never claimed outright that the mouthguard was indeed helping to prevent concussions. Rather they simply reported the findings of their tests.

So what can we then learn if the science itself is inconclusive. Well, we should probably look to combat sports themselves. And what fighters do to try and avoid being knocked out during bouts.

How to Avoid Being Knocked Out

So you may have noticed that most fighters usually have quite wide necks. Most famous is probably a prime Mike Tyson, who when viewed from the front had a wider neck than his head.

And there is a reason for this, as all professional fighters work extensively on building the muscles in their necks. With the belief that it helps them to better take a punch. And when you think about it, it makes perfect sense.

As concussions and knockouts are caused by the brain bouncing off the skull in what is known in scientific terms as contrecoup injury. Where the brain hits on the opposite side of the skull from the impact.

Mike Tyson shows us his extremely wide neck from exercising to prevent being knocked out.
Mike Tyson’s famous wide neck to prevent being knocked out.

So boxers train their necks to be able to take extreme forces. So that they can mitigate the degree to which the head will recoil from a punch. And with most knockouts coming from hooks and not jabs.

Fighters and coaches alike believe that the degree to how strong a neck is will help when it comes to, as they say, being able to take a punch. Or not having a glass jaw is another term you might sometimes mention.

Exercises to Strengthen The Neck

Fighters will use everything at their disposal to gain the upper hand in a fight. And building their necks so they can take that punch that could have knocked out another fighter is all part and parcel of that game plan.

And with a range of methods and products available. I thought it would be a good idea to give you an overview of what you can do to improve your own neck strength.

Using A Neck Harness

I own my own neck harness and have used it on and off over the years. Basically consisting of a strapped skullcap that fits over your head. With a chain coming from each side, where you add one central weight at the bottom.

To use you simply sit down with the weight hanging between your legs. Then do an up and down motion with your head, which looks like exaggerated nodding of agreement.

Try The Weighted Towel Method

Another method some fighters will use is a weighted towel. This is where they put one end of a towel through a barbell weight. Then take both ends together they bite down on the towel, allowing the weight to hang freely.

And in the same way, as mentioned previously, nod their head in exaggerated movements. Building the upper back and front of the neck as they go. And by biting down on the towel they also believe this helps in strengthening the jaw muscles themselves.

Bridging Exercises For The Neck

Bridging exercises are another way in which fighters and grapplers build their necks. It’s done by placing body weight on the neck to help enhance its muscular strength.

There are a number of ways bridging can be done. And these include someone lying on their back, raising their body up off the ground. With their hand’s palm down, but facing toward themselves.

At this point, they will have some of the weight from the body putting pressure on the neck. Using their hands to work out how much pressure the neck can take.

From here they will roll backwards and forwards, as well as side to side on the top of their head, using the neck as a fulcrum. The idea being the added weight will build up the neck muscles.

Another way is when they face the floor, crawling forward with their hands while keeping the top of their head on the ground. So with the butt in the air, the weight is being transferred down through the neck and head, as well as the toes.

And these are the most common ways you will see fighters working on their necks build that required strength.

Some Final Thoughts

So from what we have seen, the science surrounding whether or not a mouthguard helps to prevent knockouts is inconclusive. But what we do know is that it’s the accumulation of punches that appear to do the long term damage to fighters cognitive abilities.

And so they do their best to best to strengthen their necks to try to minimise how well they can take a punch. Which may not always be the best thing when you think about it.

As while they will be able to weather the storm, we don’t know what is going on beneath the hood as their brains rattle around their skulls. And whether mouthguards are helping in those terms, we cannot say for sure.

But they are necessary and they do absolutely help when it comes to protecting those chompers you got going on. So don’t skimp, wear a quality gumshield, as you only get one real set of teeth and one brain. So do the best you can in the hope you are indeed helping.

Tags: