Orthodontic braces have been around for quite a while. Plenty of young people who are getting their teeth straightened right now have parents who wore braces—and maybe grandparents too! One big reason for the longstanding popularity of braces is that they are so effective at moving teeth into better positions. But if you haven’t noticed the improvements in orthodontic appliances lately, you may be in for a surprise: They’re not your parents’ braces.
To start with, let’s look at improvements in traditional metal braces. What were once thought of as clunky gray “train tracks” are now much lighter, and require far less metal in the mouth. A major change occurred in the 1970s, when better adhesives made it possible to bond brackets directly to the teeth. Now, only the back teeth need to be wrapped with metal bands, while others simply get the brackets bonded on. Brackets themselves were improved around the same time: They no longer require metal ties to hold the archwire (the horizontal wire running across the teeth) securely in place. Instead, some brackets have their own clasps, while others use colorful elastic bands to attach the archwire.
While standard metal braces remain the most popular type, many people are now choosing ceramic braces instead. These are similar to the traditional ones—but instead of metal, their brackets are made of clear or tooth-colored ceramic material. Unless you get up close, it’s hard to see the brackets at all—even the archwire may be less noticeable. Yet they still offer all the benefits of braces—and because they are more unobtrusive, ceramic braces are often preferred by adults having orthodontic treatment.
Of course, you might wish for braces that are even less noticeable. If so, have you considered lingual braces? These metal braces are bonded to the tongue side (rather than the lip side) of the teeth, making them truly invisible. Lingual braces aren’t an option for everyone, and wearing them may take some getting used to at first. But it’s virtually impossible to detect them, which makes lingual braces the treatment of choice for some people.
Around the turn of the new millennium, a new orthodontic system was introduced that doesn’t use braces at all. Instead, it relies on a series of clear plastic aligners that fit right over your teeth. Each aligner tray is custom made for an individual’s mouth, and must be worn for 22 hours a day (but can be temporarily removed). Each one is also designed to move the teeth by a small amount; you wear it for a few weeks, then move on to the next in the series. In time, your teeth are moved significantly. Clear aligners work best in situations where teeth need only mild to moderate realignment. But they offer an inconspicuous way to get a better-looking smile without the need for braces.
In addition to these appliances, orthodontists have other tools that can help minimize treatment times, maximize results, and work with the body’s natural growth processes. One is the palatal expander. This device, which is usually worn by pre-teens, actually widens the fast-growing jawbone. It may help children with certain orthodontic conditions (such as crowding or a crossbite) avoid the need for tooth extraction, and shorten the time they need to wear braces. Temporary anchorage devices, orthodontic spacers, and other specialized appliances can be employed when needed.
The tools and techniques orthodontists use have changed dramatically in the past few decades. But one thing hasn’t changed: The pleasure we get from a bright, shiny smile. If your child’s teeth (or you own) aren’t as well-aligned as you’d like them to be, ask your dentist or orthodontist what you can do to improve them. You may find that orthodontic treatment is easier than you think.
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