One of the most common myths about braces is that they serve primarily cosmetic purposes. But an ideal smile is only one benefit of orthodontic treatment—the alignment of the teeth matters for broader dental and physical health as well.
Unfortunately, most people (around 90%) experience some form and degree of crowding, spacing, or bite misalignment–known as malocclusions. When the bones and teeth are misaligned, it can cause more than just aesthetic problems.
The most common types of malocclusions include:
- crowding, where the teeth do not have enough room to grow in properly
- spacing, where the teeth grow too far apart
- underbite, where the lower teeth and jaw extend beyond the upper front teeth
- overbite, where the upper front teeth extend over the lower front teeth
- crossbite, where one or more of the upper teeth fit inside the lower teeth
- open bite, where a large space exists between the upper and lower teeth
- overjet, where the front teeth protrude outward
An orthodontist can identify these conditions in children at a young age, which is why the American Association of Orthodontists recommends children attend their first appointments by age 7. However, many adults can benefit from orthodontic treatment to improve their overall health. Here are some of the medical reasons why tooth alignment matters.
Prevents Tooth Decay
Tooth decay occurs when bacteria feed on sugars and starches in the mouth, releasing acids that erode enamel, eventually creating holes in the hard surfaces of the teeth. These bacteria reside in a sticky film called plaque that forms in the mouth when saliva combines with residual food and drink.
If cavities go untreated too long, they expand and affect deeper layers of the teeth. This can lead to pain, infection, and even tooth loss. The more advanced a cavity is, the more extensive the work a dentist will need to perform to save the tooth. That’s why excellent oral hygiene habits are so important.
However, if you have crowding of the teeth, the process of removing cavity-causing bacteria and plaque becomes more difficult. Many people follow their dentist’s instructions for brushing and flossing but still develop cavities in difficult- or impossible-to-reach areas.
Prevents Gum Disease
Gum disease is the leading cause of tooth loss and significantly impacts health. Gum disease ranges from mild to severe infections that damage the gums’ soft tissue and the bones that hold the teeth in place. Advanced periodontitis has been linked to various medical conditions, including heart disease, dementia, stroke, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, and respiratory diseases.
Because overcrowding can make proper hygiene more difficult to achieve, patients with crowding of teeth are at a higher risk for gum disease. Additionally, when teeth are misaligned, the gums don’t always fit around the teeth properly. Open pockets between the teeth and gums provide a safe harbor for harmful bacteria.
Prevents Accidental Injury
Misaligned teeth are more likely to chip, crack, or get knocked out in accidents. Patients with overjets or bite misalignments are at the greatest risk for this. Mouthguards require straight teeth to work effectively, meaning those with misaligned teeth have less protection when playing sports. If the teeth are straight, there’s a lower risk of damage.
While many assume that poor oral hygiene habits cause bad breath, several factors can contribute to it, including misaligned teeth. Halitosis, more commonly known as bad breath, results from a buildup of bacteria around the teeth, gums, and tongue. These bacteria can become trapped when teeth are crowded or crooked, making it difficult to brush or floss them away.
Reduces Jaw Strain
The temporomandibular joint acts like a hinge that connects the skull and jawbone. Bite misalignments put excessive strain on that joint, which can result in an inability to fully open or close the mouth, as well as chronic headaches, muscle spasms, and pain in the face, neck, back, and ear. Buzzing, ringing, or numbness in the ear can also occur.
Bite realignment through orthodontic treatment can alleviate TMJ pain that stems from malocclusions. It’s easier to correct bite misalignments in younger patients whose bones are still malleable (up to age 16 in girls and 21 in boys). The longer bite misalignments exist, the more likely they are to cause pain. Therefore, it’s worth correcting a bite issue in your child or teen, even if it seems innocuous. Adults with significant jaw misalignments or irregularities might require surgical correction, possibly in addition to orthodontic care.
The jawbones will deteriorate if the body senses they are not needed. The teeth send signals to the underlying bone that stimulate its growth and health. But for patients with significant spacing, the part of the jawbone that anchors the teeth will begin to deteriorate and reabsorb if it’s not being used. This will weaken its hold on the surrounding teeth and can lead to tooth loss. When teeth are in their ideal places, they preserve the jawbone strength needed to hold them long-term.
When eating, your teeth and jaw bones enable you to bite and chew food. For those without significant bite abnormalities, this process is automatic and effortless. But, for those with a misaligned bite, eating certain foods can be difficult or impossible.
Proper alignment allows most patients to reintroduce all foods into their diets and helps protect them from biting the tongue or cheek. When the jaw is misaligned, accidental biting of these areas is more common. Frequent abrasions can cause significant pain and discomfort and potentially lead to infection.
Improves Breathing at Night
Certain malocclusions have been linked to obstructive sleep apnea, which is caused by a physical blockage of the air passageway. This can cause airflow to reduce or completely stop during breathing, lowering blood oxygen to potentially dangerous levels. Though malocclusions have not been causally linked to sleep apnea, increasing the space inside the mouth and reshaping the dental arch can significantly improve airflow for some patients.
Biting and chewing generate a lot of pressure. Teeth that are correctly aligned handle it without any issue, which isn’t the case for teeth impacted by a malocclusion. Bite problems put excessive strain on areas unequipped to take the stress, resulting in premature teeth wear. Over time, this can lead to chipping, notching at the gum line, abnormal flattening of the biting surface, and fractures.
The lips, cheeks, tongue, jaw, and teeth work together to create speech. Issues with one or more of these can impact speech sounds. If the jawbone is too small and teeth become crowded, the tongue has less room to move into the positions it needs to pronounce words clearly. The same is true when teeth are crooked, twisted, or overlapping.
Indicators of speech problems related to misalignment of teeth include a lisp or whistle when annunciating certain sounds (especially “s” and “t”), as well as a tendency to slur, mumble, or mispronounce words.
Aligned teeth are better for chewing, which marks the beginning of the food digestion process. Thoroughly chewing food helps speed up digestion and benefits the internal organs, while poorly-chewed food forces the stomach and intestines to work harder. This diminishes nutrition and can cause indigestion.
Improves Mental Health
Studies also show that teens with low self-esteem and low self-confidence are more likely to develop depression, anxiety, and other mental health problems. Correcting tooth alignment can help boost self-esteem and confidence.
People with crooked or misaligned teeth often become embarrassed about their smiles. They may cover their mouths, smile awkwardly or with their lips closed, or even avoid speaking. These actions can impact confidence and lead to persistent negative self-perceptions.
Are you ready to take the next step toward improving your overall health and smile? Start by contacting us today to schedule a consultation with one of our board-certified orthodontists.