Invented by the ancient Greeks, orthodontic braces are used to correct crooked teeth or a misaligned bite by applying continuous pressure over time to slowly move teeth in a specific direction. While methods have advanced in the centuries since Aristotle and Alexander the Great, the basic idea remains the same: With the right contraption, teeth can be forced into proper place. Currently, the two most common types of braces are traditional brackets (steel, ceramic or plastic braces bonded to the front of each tooth and connected by wires and elastic bands) and lingual brackets, which are attached to the back of the teeth [source: AAO], Medicine Net.
While the teeth-straightening process is a long, costly and often uncomfortable one, people are going to their orthodontists in droves in a quest to get the perfectly shaped grin. Everybody's doing it, especially the kids. In North America, roughly 4 million people younger than 18 are wearing braces, and four out of every five people in braces are minors. While most kids get braces between the ages of 11 and 14, the American Association of Orthodontists recommends a checkup with an orthodontist by no later than age 7, when most children still have some of their baby teeth and their adult teeth have begun to come in [sources: AAO, CAO, LA Times].
So what's with the rush to fill the mouths of our youth with hunks of metal? Is it all about aesthetics in straightening crooked smiles, or are there legitimate health reasons for getting braces? Read on to find out.
What conditions to braces treat?
Orthodontists estimate that roughly 45 percent of children need braces to fix functional problems such as a misaligned bite, but up to 75 percent of kids could benefit from them to straighten their teeth and improve the shape of their face. Orthodontists commonly recommend dental braces to fight one of two problems: tooth crowding, in which the teeth are bunched together without adequate room for adult teeth to grow in, and jaw misalignment, which includes both an overbite (where top teeth extend way beyond the bottom teeth) and underbite (the lower jaw protrudes out so the lower teeth cover the upper teeth) [source: Amley & Amley].
While many people choose to treat these conditions (collectively referred to as malocclusions) for cosmetic and self-esteem reasons, there are a number of other real benefits to wearing braces. Straight teeth allow you to bite, chew and speak more effectively, and they're easier to clean. Straight teeth also take unnecessary pressure off of gums, which can lead to a healthier mouth.
Additionally, the American Association of Orthodontists says that people who want to straighten and uncrowd their teeth but who are worried about pain and sporting a "metal mouth" have nothing to fear because treatment is now more comfortable and more successful for everyone, regardless of age [source: AAO].
However, for many people, having perfect teeth is a luxury that may not be affordable. Braces, including the cost of the hardware and orthodontist treatments, typically run between $4,000 and $8,000. While some insurance carriers provide partial coverage for the treatment, others provide none at all [source: LA Times].
Despite the various oral health benefits of straight teeth, the primary reason for braces is cosmetic. Braces may positively enhance a child's self confidence by improving his smile, and most orthodontists say that crossbites (a tooth or group of teeth that's closer to the cheek or tongue than its upper or lower counterpart) and underbites are more easily corrected if addressed early. Nevertheless, it appears that in most cases, a child who forgoes braces will not suffer serious health consequences as a result [source: Hurt].
So, the answer, as is the case with many of life's questions, to whether your child needs braces is, "it depends." Kids with severely crooked teeth or other oral problems should probably get braces to avoid the serious consequences that these conditions can bring; others should weigh the benefits and costs in consultation with an orthodontist.
More Great Links
- American Association of Orthodontists (AAO). "Adult Orthodontics." 2008. (Sept. 11, 2011) https://www.aaomembers.org/Resources/upload/Adult_Ortho-bro-08-l.pdf
- American Association of Orthodontists (AAO). "Learn – A Beautiful Smile for Everyone." (Sept. 11, 2011) http://braces.org/learn/index.cfm
- American Association of Orthodontists (AAO). "The Right Time for an Orthopedic Check-Up: No Later Than Age 7." 2003. (Sept. 11, 2011) http://braces.org/learn/upload/The-Right-Time-For-An-Orthodontic-Check-Up.pdf
- Amley & Amley Orthodontics. "Will Your Child Need Braces?" Parents. July 2007. (Sept. 11, 2011) http://www.amley-amley.com/files/parents.pdf
- Canadian Association of Orthodontists (CAO). "Facts and Information." (Sept. 12, 2011). http://cao-aco.org/ORTHODONTICINFO/facts.asp
- Hurt, Avery. "Does Your Child Really Need Braces?" Better Homes and Gardens. April 2004. (Sept. 11, 2011) http://www.bhg.com/health-family/staying-healthy/dental-health/does-your-child-really-need-braces/?page=2
- Invisalign. "How Invisalign Works." (Sept. 11, 2011) http://www.invisalign.com/How-Invisalign-Works/Pages/default.aspx
- Mascarelli, Amanda. "You Have to Get Braces? Cool." Los Angeles Times. July 1, 2011. (Sept. 11, 2011) http://articles.latimes.com/2011/jul/01/health/hk-he-orthodontics-20110701
- Medicine Net. "Dental Health: Braces and Retainers." (Sept. 12, 2011) http://www.medicinenet.com/dental_braces/article.htm#types