Even when happy, some people resist smiling. Or they cover their mouths with their hands. Their crooked teeth embarrass them.
That’s when you need to see an orthodontist.
Orthodontists are dentists with advanced training in making teeth move. They can realign crooked teeth into a straight, healthy smile.
It’s a transformation Gwen Henson saw recently when her 15-year-old son gleefully got his braces removed. That’s when she decided to treat herself to an unlikely 50th birthday present: her own set of braces.
“Getting braces was something I had thought about for years,” says Henson, an executive in Tempe, Ariz.
Her smile was only part of it. Henson also knew there are potential health issues when teeth begin shifting.
Henson is not alone. In the U.S., one in five orthodontic patients is an adult, according to the American Association of Orthodontists (AAO).
Here’s what you should know if you’re considering getting orthodontic work done.
The top reason for seeing an orthodontist is the same for adults and kids — to treat malocclusion or a “bad bite.”
Orthodontists help straighten teeth and improve your bite by correcting how your teeth fit together and how your jaws line up.
They use braces, trays (also known as aligners), and other appliances — such as headgear, which attach around the head or neck to add more force to help make teeth move. They also use retainers to hold teeth in position.
General dentists often refer patients to orthodontists and sometimes medical doctors such as pediatricians do, too. That’s more likely to happen if a child “doesn’t like their teeth and is being teased about them,” says Michael B. Rogers, DDS, president of the AAO and an orthodontist in Augusta, Ga.
To become an orthodontist, someone must complete four years of dental school, then two to three years of specialized study in orthodontics.
Most general dentists can treat minor orthodontic problems and some do orthodontic work. But they’re more likely to refer complicated cases to an orthodontist.
“Most patients see orthodontics as just straightening the teeth, but one of the most important factors is the way the bite fits together at the end of treatment,” says Alan R. Heller, DDS, an orthodontist with offices in Bethesda and Laurel, Md.
Crooked or crowded teeth, as well as overbites and underbites, can lead to tooth decay, gum disease, and even tooth loss. That’s because overlapping teeth can be tough to clean.
A bad bite also can cause problems when chewing and talking. Not to mention too much wear, grinding, and clenching.
Orthodontics has come a long way over the years. Primitive but well-designed orthodontic appliances have been found with Greek and Etruscan artifacts, Rogers says.
Stainless steel brackets and wires were introduced in 1927. Clear ceramic or porcelain brackets debuted in the 1970s. In 1999, Invisalign was introduced. It’s a series of clear trays that fit in the mouth and are changed every two weeks. Other tray aligners include ClearCorrect; Simpli5; and Red, White, and Blue.
Today, some braces are may be nearly invisible. Some have clear or tooth-colored brackets. Others are attached to the lingual (backside) of your teeth.
The AAO recommends that children see an orthodontist no later than age 7, even if there are no problems. That’s because the jaw is still developing and it’s best to catch issues early.
“Most children go into orthodontic treatment when they are between 9 and 14 years old, but the average for girls is a little earlier,” Rogers says.
The typical adult patient might be 26 to 44 years old, but Rogers says he has also put braces on people in their 60s and 70s.
How long will treatment take? Orthodontists customize treatment for each patient. It usually takes one to three years.
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