The Evolution of Orthodontic Braces

The idea behind braces is not a recent one, as efforts to align teeth date back thousands of years. However, advancements in dental technology have accelerated rapidly over the past few decades, meaning there’s never been a better time in history to be an orthodontic patient. Modern technology is continually improving orthodontic practice, and today’s patients have more options for treatment and access to care than ever before. At any given moment, more than 4 million people in the United States are wearing braces. 

History of Braces

Braces didn’t become a hallmark of American life until the second half of the 20th century, but they have deep historical roots. According to the American Journal of Orthodontics and Dentofacial Orthopedics, archaeologists have discovered Egyptian mummies dating back more than 50,000 years that have metal bands wrapped around their teeth. Cords made from animal fibers were tied to the bands, presumably designed to create enough pressure to reposition teeth.

The Egyptians weren’t the only ancient culture to value the aesthetics and functions of their smiles. Ancient Greeks, Etruscans and Romans all had methods for improving tooth alignment as well. However, their methods were far more painful than even the sorest of mouths after a modern-day braces adjustment–back then, physicians used crude tools to force the teeth straight.

Orthodontics didn’t advance significantly until the 1700s, when a dental textbook written in France by Pierre Fauchard contained an entire chapter on methods of straightening teeth. Fauchard also was the first physician to use impressions of the teeth to improve his work, and he created the first dental apparatus to expand the arch of the mouth. Soon after, another French dentist, Ettiene Bourdet, came up with methods of tooth extraction to fix crowding issues.

The 19th-century brought even more significant orthodontic advancements. J.S. Gunner introduced the chin strap in 1840, an ancestor of what we would come to know as headgear. The first dental college in the world opened in Baltimore the same year. In 1871, dentists began using metal molar bands to create small spaces between the teeth, and, in 1888, John Nutting Farrar published the first textbook on orthodontics. In it, Farrar suggested straightening teeth by making a series of small adjustments over time, a practice that orthodontists still use today. In the late 1800s, Henry A. Baker designed elastic bands to connect braces on the top with those on the bottom.

Several significant changes occurred over the 20th century. In 1900, American dentist Edward Angle opened the first school specifically for orthodontics in St. Louis. He also created a system for classifying malocclusions, which is still in place. Charles Hawley invented the retainer in 1908 and, in 1917, Calvin Case created lighter, thinner wires for braces. But the most significant change to orthodontic practices can in the 1970s, when orthodontists switched to stainless steel brackets. They had previously used expensive materials like silver and gold, making braces unaffordable to the masses. The use of stainless steel opened orthodontics to the middle class.

In the later years of the 20th century, NASA developed a heat-activated, nickel-titanium alloy material that the orthodontic field adapted for its own use. A company associated with NASA also created the first ceramic braces. And in the late ‘90s, Zia Chishti founded Align Technology and created the basic design for clear aligners.

Modern Changes

Orthodontic technology has exploded over the past 20 years. Today, digital imaging allows your orthodontist to receive a complete picture of your mouth, so you don’t have to bite into a tray of clay-like material to create a mold of your teeth anymore. Digital X-rays are safer, more comfortable and more efficient than traditional x-rays. They allow your orthodontist to see a clear picture of your teeth and jaw structure in order to create the best possible treatment plan. Orthodontists now also use special software to create digital 3D models of patients’ mouths for Invisalign treatment.

Unlike centuries past, patients today have a plethora of options for their orthodontic treatment. Traditional metal brackets are smaller than the ones your parents wore (or those you may remember from your childhood). Ceramic braces use brackets and wires that are clear or tooth-colored to make them less noticeable. Clear aligners are nearly invisible and are removable for eating, drinking, and cleaning your teeth, which makes them a convenient option as well. Finally, lingual braces are similar to traditional braces but are placed behind the teeth, making them totally invisible.

Braces today are more comfortable for wearers than at any point in history. Adjustments and orthodontist visits do not take as long, are less frequent, and are less invasive than they used to be. You will feel some mild discomfort after an adjustment, but not the intense aching and soreness that older generations may have told you about (or that you felt when you got braces many years ago). The pain from braces was excruciating in the 1700s and 1800s, severe in the early 1900s, moderate after the 1970s, and uncomfortable in the early 2000s, but today you can expect only slight discomfort.

The amount of time the average patient wears braces also has decreased over the last 20 years. New technology has made archwires more effective. Because they are now crafted from heat-activated materials, they gradually take shape and apply pressure to shift your teeth into place as they come into contact with the heat from your mouth. Software that plans and predicts the movements of clear aligners has also reduced treatment times.

Modern orthodontic treatment produces better results than ever before. There’s no longer a one-size-fits-all approach to treating patients. Orthodontists can customize treatment to fit each individual’s needs, and they also design treatments that are less invasive than they would have been in the past. Cases that may have required jaw surgery in the past can now be treated with braces or clear aligners combined with certain appliances. And some patients in the past that would have required functional orthodontic appliances can now be treated with braces alone.

Today, orthodontic treatment is open to a much larger percentage of the population. In decades past most people wore braces as teenagers; however, orthodontic treatment is now popular among children and adults. The American Association of Orthodontists recommends that children first see an orthodontist no later than age 7. No upper age limit exists for braces, and adults of all ages, including seniors, can benefit from orthodontic treatment. Currently, about one in three orthodontic patients is older than 18.

Future trends in orthodontics likely will continue to advance the speed of treatment and comfort. Eventually, 3D printing or robotics may be involved, which could make tooth movement even more precise. Experts theorize that clear aligners will become thinner and more comfortable as time goes on.

Here at Orthodontic Associates, we use the latest orthodontic technology to give you the smile you deserve. Schedule a complimentary consult at one of our convenient locations today!


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