Orthodontics is a type of dentistry that aims to improve the appearance, position and function of crooked or abnormally arranged teeth.
The name comes from a Greek word that literally means "to straighten teeth".
What does orthodontic treatment involve?
Orthodontics uses devices such as a brace to correct the position of the teeth. Your exact treatment will depend on the problems with your teeth.
In some cases, you may have to wear headgear at night as well as a brace, and you may also need to have some teeth removed as part of your treatment.
If worn correctly, you are likely to achieve good results, usually within 18-24 months. If the problem is more complicated, treatment may take longer.
Read more about the types of orthodontic treatment.
Who needs orthodontic treatment?
You may need orthodontic treatment if your teeth or jaw do not develop in a normal way. This can cause discomfort and make it hard to maintain good oral hygiene.
In some cases, abnormal development of the teeth and jaw can affect the shape of the face, which could cause psychological and emotional problems, such as lack of self-confidence.
Problems with crooked and out-of-place teeth are quite common.
Read more about when orthodontic treatment is used.
How can I access orthodontic treatment?
In most cases, you or your child will be referred to an orthodontist by your dentist, although you may be able to seek treatment directly.
Read more about accessing orthodontic treatment.
When it should be done
Orthodontic treatment is most commonly used to improve the appearance and function of misaligned or crooked teeth.
Teeth that are straighter and better aligned should be easier to clean, and may reduce strain on the muscles and joints of the jaw.
The improved appearance of your teeth or jaw might also help to boost your self-esteem and self-confidence.
Some of the most common teeth problems requiring orthodontic treatment are listed below.
- protruding upper front teeth – one of the most common reasons for needing orthodontic treatment, particularly as the teeth may be more prone to damage during falls or contact sports
- crowding – people with narrow jaws often lack enough space for their teeth, resulting in crowding
- impacted teeth – the adult teeth may not come through as they grow in the wrong position
- asymmetrical teeth – in some people, the centre of their upper and lower teeth do not match, giving their teeth an asymmetrical or crooked appearance
- deep bite – the upper teeth cover the lower teeth too much
- reverse bite – the upper teeth bite inside the lower teeth
- open bite – the upper and lower front teeth do not meet when the mouth is closed; an open bite often occurs as a result of prolonged thumb sucking
Causes of teeth problems
Sometimes, problems that affect the normal development of teeth run in families. This suggests there may be certain genes you inherit from your parents that disrupt the development of your teeth and jaw. Genes are units of genetic material that control how your body and characteristics develop.
In many cases, problems with a person's teeth and jaw occur for no apparent reason. However, they can be damaged in an accident, such as a fall, or as a result of activities such as persistent thumb sucking.
Looking after baby teeth properly can reduce the problems sometimes found with adult teeth.
Other reasons for treatment
Orthodontics can also be used to treat other health problems.
For example, orthodontics is part of treatment for cleft lip and palate, a type of birth defect where a child is born with a split (cleft) in their upper lip, the roof of their mouth (the palate), or both. Orthodontic treatment can help correct the function and appearance of the teeth and jaw.
People who have been diagnosed with mild sleep apnoea may also benefit from orthodontic treatment. This is a condition that causes interrupted breathing during sleep. An orthodontist can make a dental appliance, similar to a gum shield, which can help prevent the airway from closing while you sleep.
When can treatment start?
A course of orthodontic treatment will usually only be started after all of a child's adult teeth have started to come through.
For most children this will be when they are about 12 or 13 years of age, although treatment may sometimes be necessary before or after this.
For adults, orthodontic treatment can begin at any age, but what can be done is more limited.
Orthodontists will not usually begin a course of orthodontic treatment unless you have a good standard of oral hygiene.
This is because people receiving orthodontic treatment are at an increased risk of tooth decay if they do not brush their teeth regularly and have a good diet.
How it is performed
There are many different types of orthodontic treatment, depending on the exact problem with your teeth or jaw.
The first stage of treatment is to assess the state of your teeth and their likely development. This usually involves taking X-rays, making plaster models and taking photographs of your teeth.
This will give the orthodontist an idea of the treatment needed and the likely results.
Orthodontic treatment uses appliances to correct the position of the teeth. The four main types are:
- fixed braces – a non-removable brace made up of brackets that are glued to each tooth and linked with wires
- removable braces – usually plastic plates that cover the roof of the mouth and clip on to some teeth; they can only carry out very limited tooth movements
- functional appliances – a pair of removable plastic braces that are joined together or are designed to interact together and fit on to the upper and lower teeth
- headgear – this is not an orthodontic appliance itself, but can be used with other appliances and is usually worn at night
In more severe cases, treatment may involve fixed braces and surgery to move the jaw. This treatment is carried out in hospitals.
Fixed braces are the most common type of orthodontic appliance. They can be used when a number of teeth need to be corrected, or when the treatment needs to be precise to prevent problems in the future.
You will be able to eat normally while wearing a fixed appliance. However, you should avoid certain foods and drinks, such as toffee, hard sweets and fizzy drinks, because they can damage the appliance and teeth. Your orthodontist will be able to give you further advice.
If you are using a fixed appliance and you play a contact sport such as rugby, you should wear a gum shield to protect both your mouth and the appliance.
Fixed braces are usually made out of metal, so they will be noticeable on the front of your teeth. Many private orthodontists now offer ceramic or clear plastic braces that are much less noticeable, although they are usually more expensive. However, their use also depends on the particular problem and tooth position.
Removable braces can be used to correct minor problems, such as slightly crooked teeth. They can also be used to discourage children from sucking their thumb.
These braces should only be taken out of the mouth for cleaning or as a precaution during certain activities, such as cycling or playing a wind instrument. Your orthodontist can advise you about this.
Functional appliances can be used to treat problems with the position of the upper jaw and teeth and the lower jaw and teeth.
Most people will need to wear them all of the time. It is very important to follow your orthodontist's instructions about how and when to wear the appliance. If it is not worn correctly, the treatment will be unsuccessful.
It may be necessary to remove your functional appliance for cleaning and while you are eating.
Headgear is used to correct the position of the back teeth or to keep them in position while the front teeth are being treated. Most people only need to wear headgear for a few hours during the evening or when they are sleeping. You will not be able to eat or drink while wearing headgear.
There are other types of braces available privately, such as "invisible" or lingual braces that fit on the back of the teeth. You will need to discuss them with your orthodontist to see whether they can be used for your problem. The cost of these braces is usually higher.
Retainers are often used near the end of a course of orthodontic treatment. Retainers hold newly fixed teeth in place while the surrounding gum and bone adjusts to the new position of the teeth. Retainers can be either removable or fixed.
Your orthodontist will advise you when to wear your retainer. It is likely that if you stop wearing your retainers there will be some tooth movement. Changes in the position of your teeth can continue throughout life and are part of the normal ageing process. The only way to have permanently straight teeth is to wear a retainer on a part-time basis for life.
In some cases, it may be necessary to remove a tooth to correct the position and appearance of nearby teeth. But as a result of recent advances in orthodontic treatment, removing teeth has become much less common.
However, if baby teeth have been extracted there is a greater likelihood that adult teeth need to be extracted as part of orthodontic treatment.
The starting point for both types of orthodontic care is usually your dentist, who may refer you to an orthodontist. You may also be able to seek treatment directly yourself.