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What colors and styles do braces come in?

Braces aren't a one-size -- or even a one-style -- fits all endeavor.
Braces aren't a one-size -- or even a one-style -- fits all endeavor.
iStockphoto/Thinkstock

Braces used to be the bane of teenagers -- but not anymore. Though the taunts of "tinsel teeth" and "metal mouth" can probably still be heard occasionally, those mean-spirited jeers have been pushed to the fringes of a teen's social milieu. That's because braces have become more status symbol than stigma these days, mainly due to the product itself that looks and works better.

"There are a lot of options out there for patients," said Theresa Chidsey, treatment coordinator for Dr. Michael Riccio, an orthodontist based on Boston's North Shore [source: Chidsey]. "Those options range from stainless steel brackets, which we tend to use, to clear or tooth-colored brackets. There are even invisible types of aligners, Invisalign being one of the more popular ones."

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All these options are design to correct the age-old problem of a bad bite, or "malocclusion," as the dental community would call it. Either way, we're talking about teeth that simply don't line up correctly. That can happen when teeth are crowded, or if they come in crooked. There can also be an overbite, or underbite. These can be the result of natural causes, habit -- such as lip or thumb sucking -- or even an injury. And what parent doesn't fear the damage that competitive sports can wreak on a nice smile?

Today, braces (or appliances) and aligners still work wonders at correcting these problems, but they're much more subtle -- that is, unless you don't mind showcasing them. If that's the case, you have more choices than a kid in a penny-candy store.

Brackets (the part of the brace that is actually attached to the tooth) come in a variety of materials, including metal, ceramic, plastic and even shapes. The metal archwires and bands connecting the brackets can come in different colors and shades, too, and clear wires are even being developed. For the height of facial fashion, the elastic ligatures or rubber bands come in just about any color imaginable, giving patients a chance to really individualize their look. One orthodontist told Parenthood.com that today's braces are thought of "like jewelry" for many young girls [source: Parenthood].

Ready for a kinder, gentler set of braces?

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Another stigma that followed braces right into the new century was that they hurt. A lot. Wide metal bands and tighteners left kids feeling like their teeth were trapped in a vise. But today's orthodontic treatments have taken many of the tears out of the dental equation, thanks to improvements in the braces themselves and the techniques used to apply them.

"The significant advances are that the brackets are smaller and stronger," said Chidsey. "That means dental hygiene is easier for our patients."

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Chidsey and others note that the quality and size of the wires used, and technology employed during bracket placement (such as adhesives that bond the bracket directly to each tooth), are continuously evolving and improving.

"The technology is constantly changing," she said. "The treatments are much easier on the patient than they used to be."

All those advancements come with a price, however. Braces, while gentler on a patient's teeth, are still painful when it comes to many family budgets. Costs, not surprisingly, can vary considerably, but patients can plan on a final price tag of roughly $4,000 to $6,000 for a normal two-year treatment. Not many people have dental insurance policies that will cover the entire bill. In fact, many insurance policies carry a "lifetime cap" on orthodontic work that rarely covers the full amount.

On the plus side of the cost-benefit analysis, however, many orthodontists recognize the financial burden that dental work brings, and they will often work with patients and their families to find a sensible solution. Many offer payment plans to help take the sting out of the initial financial hit. Dr. Riccio's office, for example, sets the ceiling of the total treatment cost at the beginning of the two-year treatment period, and that price is guaranteed -- even if the patient requires additional work.

So now you're probably wondering: What's the patient's responsibility?

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Orthodontic work is no magic carpet ride to a lifetime of good dental health and pearly white smiles. To be blunt, braces are not a "set it and forget it" proposition. For any orthodontic treatment to be successful, the patient needs to be a fully vested partner in the process.

Braces, said Chidsey, are "very effective. But they're not as effective without complete patient compliance."

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Patients (or their parents) have to be vigilant about keeping follow-up appointments, practicing good dental hygiene (brushing and flossing) as often as possible and faithfully wearing retainers and head gear between visits to the orthodontist.

"Even food choices can be tricky," said Chidsey. "It's not easy giving up popcorn."

If you're getting braces, be ready to sacrifice foods that are hard, sticky and sweet. Some might surprise you. Foods (or food products) that orthodontists recommend their patients avoid include corn on the cob, caramel candy, bubblegum, pretzels and other "hard" chips and snacks, ice, beef jerky, apples, raw carrots and hard rolls, such as bagels or tough pizza crust [source: Parenthood]. Foods like chicken wings and barbecued ribs are permitted only if the meat is removed from the bone first. Hard candy -- a staple in most teenagers' diets -- is a double whammy, since its density is an accident waiting to happen for both braces and tooth enamel, and its sugar content feeds the bacteria that cause cavities.

Adhering to the doctor's orders can be a daunting task, especially when you consider that most treatment periods last an average of 24 months. That's a long-term commitment and might seem like a lifetime to the average teenager. But the reality is that while the orthodontist can provide a set of braces and a detailed game plan, having a patient who will dutifully follow that game plan is essential to the long-term success of the treatment.

When's a good time to get braces?

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Will you or your child need braces? The odds are, unfortunately, yes. Perfect teeth, and a perfect bite, are a rarity. Chidsey says most patients that come through Dr. Riccio's office would benefit from some orthodontic adjustment, though how comprehensive that work needs to be varies considerably on a patient to patient basis. Backing up that observation, the American Association of Orthodontists (AAO) estimates that roughly 75 percent of Americans have some form of a "bad bite."

Another important factor regarding braces is when to get them. The typical candidate is a teenager, someone old enough to have all their permanent teeth and molars come in, but still young enough to make adjustments with minimal intervention.

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Orthodontic work can be done earlier, with children as young as 6, but often only when the work is required to repair significant structural issues that will prevent permanent teeth from setting properly, or other oral problems, such as jaw alignment and tooth extraction. This work should only be undertaken after consulting with your family dentist and perhaps even an oral surgeon. The AAO recommends that children participate in a full orthodontic evaluation by age 7.

The key consideration, according to Chidsey, is good oral health. "The cosmetic benefits are obvious," she said. "But it's really done to avoid dental issues. It's about the long-term health benefits. The cosmetics are the icing on the cake."

The bottom line is that properly fitted braces will allow for more thorough brushing and flossing, will help prevent enamel erosion from poor bite, can help alleviate corollary health issues stemming from poor jaw alignment and will often result in a dazzling smile. Anyone -- kids and adults, alike -- can appreciate how cool that is.

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Sources

  • American Association of Orthodontists. "Myths and Facts." Braces.org. (Sept. 9, 2011) http://www.braces.org/mythsandfacts/index.cfm
  • American Dental Association. "Braces and Orthodontics." (Sept. 9, 2011) http://www.ada.org/3061.aspx
  • Babcock, Pamela. "When to See an Orthodontist." WebMD. Last reviewed Aug. 16, 2011. (Sept. 8, 2011) http://www.webmd.com/oral-health/features/when-to-see-orthodontist
  • Chidsey, Theresa. Treatment coordinator for Dr. Michael Riccio (drmichaelriccio.com). Personal interview. (Sept. 13, 2011)
  • KidsHealth. "Braces." Kidshealth.org. (Sept. 8, 2011) http://kidshealth.org/Features.jsp?lic=1&feature=30
  • Parenthood. "Braces Chic: Why Tin Grins Are In." Parenthood.com. (Sept. 9, 2011) http://www.parenthood.com/article-topics/braces_chic_why_tin_grins_are_in.html/full-view
  • Parenthood. "Don't Eat That: Foods to Avoid While Wearing Braces." Parenthood.com. (Sept. 9, 2011) http://www.parenthood.com/article-topics/dont_eat_that_foods_to_avoid_while_wearing_braces.html
  • Parenthood. "Everything You Need to Know About Braces." Parenthood.com. (Sept. 9, 2011) http://www.parenthood.com/article-topics/everything_you_need_to_know_about_braces.html
  • WebMD. "Dental Braces and Retainers." WebMD.com. Reviewed, Feb. 8, 2009. (Sept. 10, 2011) http://www.webmd.com/oral-health/guide/braces-and-retainers
  • WhyBraces. "Braces and Common Teeth Problems." Whybraces.com. (Sept. 8, 2011) http://www.whybraces.com/

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