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Adult Orthodontics - It Can Help At Any Age

Today, orthodontic treatment is a viable option for almost any adult. It is well recognized that when left untreated, many orthodontic problems may become worse.  When you have a malocclusion (“bad bite”), your teeth may be crowded, excessively spaced or may not fit together correctly.  Such conditions may lead to dental health problems.  Crowded teeth are hard to clean and, given time, may contribute to tooth decay, gum disease and even tooth loss.  Bad bites can also result in abnormal wearing of tooth surfaces, difficulty chewing and damage to supporting bone and gum tissue.  Poorly aligned teeth can contribute to pain in the jaw joints. 

You’ll be pleased to learn that orthodontic treatment will fit in with your current lifestyle – you can sing, play a musical instrument, dine out, kiss, and even have your picture taken. One in five orthodontic patients is an adult. The AAO(American Association of Orthodontists) estimates that more than 1,000,000 adults in the United States and Canada are receiving orthodontic treatment. To learn about correction of a specific problem, please consult your dentist.

The rate of toothlessness has declined over recent decades.  Our great-grandparents, for the most part, lost their teeth around age 40.  Today’s 25-year-old has the potential of another 75 years of keeping and using their teeth.  This is a major change in dental health care (and life expectancy).  Teeth that do not fit well often wear down more quickly—another reason to make sure that your teeth are in good alignment and well maintained in your adult years.

Frequently asked questions about adult orthodontics:

Can orthodontic treatment do for me what it does for children?

Yes.  Healthy teeth can be moved at any age. Many orthodontic problems can be corrected as easily for adults as for children. Orthodontic forces move the teeth in the same way for both adults and children, but adult treatment may take longer due to the maturity of the bone. Complicating factors, such as lack of jaw growth, may create different treatment planning needs for the adult.  This is why a consultation with an orthodontist, the dental specialist who aligns teeth and jaws of patients of all ages, is essential.

How does adult treatment differ from that of children and adolescents?

Adults are not growing and may have experienced some breakdown or loss of their teeth and the bone that supports the teeth. Orthodontic treatment may then be only a part of the patient's overall treatment plan. Close coordination may be required among the orthodontist, oral surgeon, periodontist, endodontist and family dentist to assure that the treatment plan is managed well. Below are the most common characteristics that can cause adult treatment to differ from that of children.

  • No Jaw Growth: Jaw discrepancy problems, including both width and length, in the adult patient may require jaw surgery.  For example, if an adult’s lower jaw is too short to match properly with the upper jaw, a severe bite problem results. The amount that the teeth can be moved in some cases, with braces alone, may not correct this problem. Establishing a proper bite relationship could require jaw surgery, which would lengthen the lower jaw and bring the lower teeth forward into the proper bite.
  • Gum or bone loss (periodontal breakdown): Adults are more likely to have experienced damage or loss of the gum and bone supporting their teeth (periodontal disease).  Periodontal disease is a chronic bacterial infection that affects the gums and bone supporting the teeth.  The word periodontal literally means “around the tooth.”  Many people are unaware that they have gum disease because there is usually little or no pain.
  • Periodontal disease can affect one tooth or many teeth. It begins when the bacteria in plaque (the sticky, colorless film that constantly forms on your teeth) causes inflammation in the gums. The mildest form of the disease is called gingivitis.  The gums redden, swell and bleed easily. Gingivitis is often linked to inadequate oral hygiene. Gingivitis is often reversible with professional treatment and good oral home care.
  • Untreated gingivitis can advance to periodontitis, a more severe form of gum disease. With time, plaque can spread and grow below the gum line. Toxins produced by the bacteria in plaque irritate the gums. The toxins stimulate a chronic inflammatory response in which the body, in essence, turns on itself, and the tissues and bone that support the teeth are broken down and destroyed. Gums separate from the teeth, forming pockets (spaces between the teeth and gums) that become infected. As the disease progresses, the pockets deepen and more gum tissue and bone are destroyed. Eventually, teeth can become loose and may have to be removed.
  • The good news is that teeth that are properly aligned are less prone to gum disease. 
  • Special treatment by the patient’s dentist or a periodontist may be necessary before, during and/or after orthodontic treatment. Bone loss can also limit the amount and direction of tooth movement that is advisable.
  • Worn, damaged or missing teeth: Worn, damaged or missing teeth can make orthodontic treatment more difficult. Teeth may gradually wear and move into positions where they can be restored only after precise orthodontic movement. Damaged or broken teeth may not look good or function well even after orthodontic treatment unless they are carefully restored by the patient's dentist. Extra space resulting from missing teeth that are not replaced may cause progressive tipping and drifting of other teeth, which worsens the bite, increases the potential for periodontal problems and makes any treatment more difficult.

    I have painful jaw muscles and jaw joints - can orthodontic treatment help?

    One of the problems commonly associated with jaw muscle and jaw joint discomfort is bruxing, that is, habitual grinding or clenching of the teeth, particularly at night.  Bruxism is a muscle habit pattern that can cause severe wearing of the teeth, and overloading and trauma to the jaw joint structures. Chronically or acutely sore and painful jaw muscles may accompany the bruxing habit. An orthodontist can help diagnose this problem. Your family dentist or orthodontist may place a bite splint or nightguard appliance that can protect the teeth and help jaw muscles relax, substantially reducing the original pain symptoms. Sometimes structural damage can require joint surgery and/or restoration of damaged teeth. Referral to a TMJ specialist may be suggested for some of these problems.

    My family dentist said I need to have some missing teeth replaced, but I need orthodontic treatment first - why?

    Your dentist is probably recommending orthodontics so that he or she might treat you in the best manner possible to bring you to optimal dental health. Many complicated tooth restorations, such as crowns, bridges and implants, can be best accomplished when the remaining teeth are properly aligned and the bite is correct.

    When permanent teeth are lost, it is common for the remaining teeth to drift, tip or shift. This movement can create a poor bite and uneven spacing that cannot be restored properly unless the missing teeth are replaced. Tipped teeth usually need to be straightened so they can withstand normal biting pressures in the future.

    My teeth have been crooked for many years - why should I have orthodontic treatment now?

    It’s never too late! Orthodontic treatment, when indicated, is a positive step—especially for adults who have endured a long-standing problem. Orthodontic treatment can restore good function.  And teeth that work better usually look better, too. A healthy, beautiful smile can improve self-esteem, no matter the age.

    Adapted from the American Association of Orthodontists

     
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