Orthodontics in the 21st Century

Aug. 30, 2001
Space-Age Technology and Software Advances Bring the Oldest Dental Specialty Into a New Era

ST. LOUIS--Orthodontic treatment has come a long way in its first century. Not too long ago, the process of putting braces on could take several long, uncomfortable appointments. Braces were attached to teeth with steel bands that had to be individually fitted around each tooth. The second century of orthodontics begins with major advances such as technology adapted from NASA, smaller braces applied directly to the tooth surface, high-tech adhesives, and computer-software to make orthodontic treatment a much more comfortable and simplified process.

�Treatment today is certainly more efficient and predictable,� says Dr. Frederick G. Preis of Bel Air, Md., president of the American Association of Orthodontists (AAO). �Thanks to the modern materials we use and the improved techniques, patients usually don�t need to come to the office as frequently as was necessary in the past.�

One of the most dramatic breakthroughs in orthodontics came from NASA: heat-activated nickel-titanium alloy wires that effectively move teeth when the wires reach mouth temperature. These new wires apply gradual, precise, and gentle pressures, yet retain their teeth-moving abilities longer than their predecessors. In contrast, stainless-steel wires were less resilient and needed more frequent adjustments by the orthodontist.

Some of today�s braces are translucent or tooth-colored. Additionally, metal brackets are now smaller and less noticeable. With multicolor elastic ties that attach the wires to the brackets, today�s braces are also fun. Many young orthodontic patients enjoy color coordinating their rubber bands as a fashion accessory�but this is an accessory that will help them achieve a healthy smile that�s good for life.

Bracket adhesives have advanced into the 21st century as well. Some continuously release fluoride to help protect tooth enamel underneath brackets, while others are formulated to withstand moisture.

Orthodontics in the 21st century can also provide a �glimpse into the future,� showing the results that orthodontic care could provide for an individual. New computer-software programs can generate �virtual faces,� helping orthodontists plan treatment and patients visualize potential results.

The AAO has a free computer-imaging program called �Smile Bank� available to people considering orthodontic care for themselves or their children. Interested individuals can send a photo of the potential patient smiling, and an orthodontist will prepare a computer-generated �after braces� picture.

Braces at Almost Any Age

�A healthy, beautiful smile is the most obvious result of orthodontic treatment, but there�s so much more to our specialty than meets the eye,� points out Dr. Preis. �As teeth and jaws come into alignment, self-esteem increases, too. Patients can look forward to good dental health.�

Today, more adults are having orthodontic treatment because of greater awareness of the health benefits of a proper bite and the increased self-esteem that comes with an attractive smile. �Given today�s technological advances and the affordability of treatment, patients of all ages are improving their smiles,� Dr. Preis says.

Juliet didn�t start treatment until she was in her 40s. She, like countless others who feel embarrassed about their crooked teeth, would reflexively cover her mouth whenever she laughed or smiled. Now she beams and wonders what took her so long to seek treatment.

Five million people in the United States and Canada are currently in orthodontic treatment, according to the AAO. One in five is over age 18. Some patients are in their 50s, 60s, and older. Less visible, more comfortable braces make treatment more appealing than ever. Healthy teeth, bones, and gums of almost any age respond well to treatment.

Identifying Problems Early

While orthodontic treatment can be successful at almost any age, early detection of orthodontic problems may prevent complications in the long run. Early guidance of jaw growth, in some cases, may decrease a patient�s need for more involved procedures later on.

Many parents assume they must wait until a child has all of his or her permanent teeth before visiting the orthodontist, only to find treatment could have been much easier if started earlier. Some orthodontic problems are best treated while the face is still developing. Therefore, the AAO recommends that every child have an orthodontic check-up no later than age 7.

�This check-up can ease a parent�s mind,� says Dr. Preis. �As with many things, knowing when to do something is as important as what to do.� If immediate treatment is recommended, orthodontists may recommend interceptive or preventive treatment, rather than conventional braces, for younger patients.

�At other times, watchful waiting is the appropriate course of action,� notes Dr. Preis.

Regardless of when orthodontic treatment is started, orthodontics can ease physical and emotional trauma. A child whose teeth are crooked or whose jaws obviously are out of alignment may suffer from more than just the thoughtless teasing of other kids. Teeth that are not in the right position are also prone to injury.

About the American Association of Orthodontists

Founded in 1900, the American Association of Orthodontists (AAO) has more than 13,500 members in the United States, Canada, and abroad. The AAO supports research and education leading to quality patient care and promotes increased awareness of the need for and benefits of orthodontic treatment.

Orthodontists are uniquely qualified to correct �bad bites.� To be a specialist in orthodontics, the American Dental Association requires at least two academic years of advanced specialty training in orthodontics in an accredited program, after graduation from dental school.

Anyone interested in the AAO �Smile Bank� and seeing how they might look after braces may send a photo of the potential patient facing the camera and smiling a natural, �toothy� smile to: SMILES, AAO, 401 North Lindbergh Blvd., St. Louis, MO 63141-7816. Please include the name, address, and a daytime phone number.

For a free video packed with valuable information about orthodontics, �A Smile That�s Good for Life,� call (800) STRAIGHT--(800) 787-2444. Additional information can be found on the AAO�s Web site at www.braces.org.