It’s never too late to correct orthodontic problems! When left untreated, malocclusion can continue to become worse over time, and the problems that result go beyond the cosmetic.
Orthodontic treatment is a viable option for almost any adult and with the options available, treatment can fit seamlessly within your current lifestyle and not affect your work or personal life. One in five orthodontic patients is an adult, and the American Association of Orthodontists estimates that more than 1,000,000 adults in the United States and Canada are receiving orthodontic treatment. Read our Guide to Orthodontics for more general information about orthodontics, the treatment options available, first steps and what to expect, and more.
How adult orthodontic treatment differs from children’s orthodontic treatment
Healthy teeth can be moved at any age, meaning that many orthodontic problems can be corrected as easily for adults as for children. Orthodontic treatments 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. This is why a consultation with an orthodontist, the dental specialist who aligns teeth and jaws of patients of all ages, is essential.
Below are the most common characteristics that can cause adult treatment to differ from that of children.
No jaw growth
Because an adult patient’s jaw is no longer growing, discrepancy problems with the width or length of the jaw may require jaw surgery to correct. 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 disease)
Adults are more likely to have experienced damage or loss of the gums and bone supporting their teeth. This condition is a chronic bacterial infection called periodontal disease. Many people are unaware that they have periodontal disease because there is usually little or no pain, but the condition may make it necessary for special treatment by a dentist or a periodontist before, during, and after orthodontic treatment. Bone loss can also limit the amount and direction of tooth movement that is advisable. However, the good news is that teeth that are properly aligned are less prone to gum disease.
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.
Orthodontics and jaw pain
One condition commonly associated with jaw muscle and jaw joint discomfort is bruxism – the habitual grinding or clenching of the teeth, particularly at night. Bruxism is a muscle habit pattern that can cause severe wearing of the teeth, along with overloading of and trauma to the jaw joint structures. Chronically or acutely sore and painful jaw muscles may accompany bruxism.
An orthodontist can help diagnose this condition. Your family dentist or orthodontist may recommend 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. Read our section on TMJ Disorders for more information on this.
Orthodontics and missing or damaged teeth
Many complicated tooth restorations, such as crowns, bridges, and dental 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. In this type of situation, your dentist will recommend orthodontics so that he or she is able to treat your condition properly, in order to best improve your dental health.