Braces and retainers are pretty much a rite of passage for adolescents transitioning into their teenage years. But did you know that adults can also benefit from orthodontic treatment to realign and straighten teeth?
From adjusting small gaps to correcting overbites, braces and other orthodontic treatments can transform a smile at any age. In fact, “grown-ups” now constitute one out of every five patients undergoing orthodontic treatment, and that’s just a small proportion of adults who could benefit.
Aesthetics are certainly a motivating factor for seeking orthodontic treatment. A great-looking smile boosts self-confidence and makes a great first impression in social and business interactions. There can be health benefits, too. Misaligned teeth can be harder to effectively brush and floss, which is vital in preventing tooth decay (cavities) and periodontal (gum) disease.
While age is no obstacle, your oral and overall general health, along with the type of problem you’re looking to fix, do factor into your eligibility for braces. Of primary importance is your periodontal health (“peri” = around; “odont” = tooth). More prevalent in adults than in adolescents, gum, or periodontal, disease can result in the loss of tooth-supporting bone, a process that orthodontic therapies may aggravate. Whether you’ve lost some bone in the past doesn’t necessarily rule out orthodontic treatment. However, ongoing periodontal disease must be brought under control before orthodontic treatment is undertaken. If the surrounding periodontal tissues are healthy, you can have orthodontic therapy safely.
Some general medical conditions may preclude or complicate orthodontic treatment—for example, severe, uncontrolled diabetes; severe heart-valve disease; bleeding disorders; and leukemia. Certain medications for common adult ailments like arthritis or osteoporosis may cause mouth dryness, which increases the risk of tooth decay and may make orthodontic treatment uncomfortable. Your dental and medical history along with your thoughts on improving your smile are some of the things you will discuss with your orthodontist prior to creating a treatment plan.
Orthodontists—dentists specializing in diagnosing and treating tooth alignment and bite problems, or malocclusion (“mal” = bad; “occlusion” = bite)—can offer different treatment options depending on the extent of work involved and other considerations. All options achieve tooth straightening by capitalizing on the fact that teeth have the capacity to move, making it possible to control and direct their positioning by the use of orthodontic appliances.
Without getting too involved, here’s the science behind the magic of orthodontics: Each tooth is suspended in its own “socket” within the jawbone by stretchy ligaments that respond to pressure/force, and can pivot in much the same way as a joystick. On the compression side of the force (the direction in which the force is pushing), bone is removed (or resorbed), and on the tension side (the direction from which the force is pulling away), it is added (deposited). Under normal circumstances, the amount of compression and tension is roughly equal, resulting in no net gain or loss.
Braces exert forces in a calculated and controlled fashion via small brackets attached to the crowns of the teeth through which “arch wires” pass. The arch wires apply predetermined forces that carefully modulate the process of bone deposition and resorption, causing teeth to move in a predictable manner and direction over time.
If you’re not thrilled by the thought of a smile punctuated by bands of metal—the traditional, durable “gold standard” of braces—you should know that there are other options. Brackets can be made of clear material so the only thing visible is the thin archwire, and depending on the desired outcome, lingual braces may be an option. They’re similar to traditional ones except they’re bonded to the back of teeth instead of the front, so they can’t be seen. There is also a removable alternative: a succession of clear aligners designed with specialized computer modeling to fit precisely over your teeth to move them incrementally. An in-depth discussion with your dentist or orthodontist will help clarify which option is best for you.
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