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PA dentist watches his patients compete in Olympics

August 30, 2016

By Michelle Manchir

Photo of Katie Bam and Dr. Rick Knowlton

Sports dentistry in action: Dr. Rick Knowlton provides dental care for members of the U.S. women’s field hockey team. He speaks with athlete Katie Bam during a visit before the Olympics.
Photo by LNP Media Group

The enthusiasm and pride so many experienced when watching the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro felt personal for Dr. Rick Knowlton.

That’s because he serves as a team dentist for the U.S. Women’s Field Hockey team, doing everything from dental prophylaxis to treating caries to responding to traumatic dental injuries.

While the Olympians Dr. Knowlton knows well didn’t make it to a podium in August — Germany knocked them out of the games in the quarter-finals — the Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania, dentist said it is a pleasure to play a small part in helping some of the best athletes in the world compete.

“If you’re fighting a chronic dental infection, you’re not at the top of your game,” he said.

Dr. Knowlton, like 125 dentists across the country, is a volunteer with the Academy for Sports Dentistry/U.S. Olympic Committee Volunteer Dentist Participation Program, he said. In this program, eligible Team USA athletes are connected with a volunteer member of the Academy for Sports Dentistry for dental care.

Often, Olympic-level athletes are living “spartan lifestyles,” Dr. Knowlton said, many lacking access or time  to seek dental care since they spend many of their days training.

The Academy for Sports Dentistry program assisting the athletes formed after the 2012 London Olympics, said Dr. Knowlton, a past president of the academy. More than 30 percent of the visits to the medical clinic in London, Dr. Knowlton said, were for acute dental problems, highlighting many athletes’ need for dental homes. It’s not uncommon, he said, to see Olympic-level athletes with caries or periodontal disease.

“These athletes are doing everything they can to be at the top of their game,” he said. “Going to the dentist is often not part of that routine.”

Having worked in sports dentistry for decades with a minor league football team and with college and high school athletes, Dr. Knowlton was a natural fit to pitch in with the women’s field hockey team, whose central training spot is less than 20 miles from Dr. Knowlton’s office.

Dr. Knowlton has treated field hockey team members since 2015, including their sometimes-gruesome sports-related dental injuries. He recalled when one athlete was hit by a field hockey ball in the mouth, requiring root canal therapy — and another struck by a pole, snapping one of her front teeth in half.

“We were able to keep them both smiling,” Dr. Knowlton said.

Dr. Knowlton said dentists who want to volunteer with athletes would benefit from becoming a member of the Academy for Sports Dentistry and taking a course or two related to dental trauma, such as the academy’s Team Dentist Course. All dentists, he said, can participate in some fundamentals of sports dentistry, like educating athletes about mouthguards and making mouthguards.

Contributing to the Olympic team and being part of what he calls the “excitement and energy” of the Olympics has been an “excellent experience,” he said.

“When I look back on getting out of dental school, I would never believe I would be involved with the U.S. Olympic movement or be affiliated with an Olympic team,” he said. “I’m a firm believer, as many dentists are, in giving back to my community. Being able to help these athletes, with their passion and drive, makes giving back even better.”

For more information about the Academy for Sports Dentistry, fabricating quality mouthguards, becoming a team dentist or an Olympic providing dentist, visit www.academyforsportsdentistry.org.