It’s a popular assumption that braces are only for cosmetic purposes. While orthodontic treatment does improve and perfect the appearance of your teeth, the benefits of straight teeth go far beyond aesthetics. The alignment of your teeth influences your dental health, medical wellness, and your ability to perform routine tasks, such as eating.
Misalignments of the teeth are known as malocclusions. Ideally, your teeth should fit in your mouth without any crowding, spacing, or bite issues. When one of these conditions occurs, your teeth can’t function optimally, and your oral and medical health could be at risk. The most common types of malocclusions are:
Crowding: Crowding is when there teeth do not have enough room to grow in properly, which results in “crooked teeth.”
Underbite: The lower teeth and jaw extend beyond the upper front teeth, causing the bottom teeth to sit in front of the upper teeth.
Overbite: The upper front teeth extend over the lower front teeth, sometimes causing the lower front teeth to bite into the roof of the mouth or appear hidden.
Crossbite: One or more of the upper teeth fit inside the lower teeth.
Openbite: A large space exists between the upper and lower teeth.
Malocclusions can be identified at a young age, so early treatment may prevent chronic dental and health issues. However, in the past several years, orthodontists are seeing more adult patients than ever before. Whether you are a first-time patient or wearing braces again, pain or other conditions caused by misalignment can often be prevented or corrected with orthodontic treatment.
Gum Disease & Tooth Decay
If you have crowded teeth, your risk of developing gum disease and tooth decay is greater than someone with adequate spacing. Tooth decay occurs when bacteria and acids build up and begin to wear away the outer layers of your teeth. As decay occurs, irritation causes your gums to recede, which can further expose teeth to harmful bacteria and lead to cavities. Bacteria can be removed through regular brushing and flossing. However, when teeth are crowded, it’s difficult to brush and floss them properly, which increases the likelihood of tooth decay or gingivitis.
Gingivitis is an inflammation of the part of your gums that comes in contact with your teeth. If left untreated, it can evolve into a more serious condition known as periodontal disease, or gum disease. Gum disease can destroy the bone that supports your teeth, ultimately causing tooth loss. In cases where teeth become impacted (cannot fully grow in), infection can occur.
Studies have shown that the same bacteria that cause gum disease are associated with other serious medical issues and conditions, such as heart disease, strokes, type 2 diabetes, respiratory infections, osteoporosis, dementia, and cancer. If you have gum disease, you could be at greater risk of developing these diseases.
The lips, cheeks, tongue, jaw, and teeth all work together to create speech. When there is an issue with one or more of these, speech can be impacted. If your jawbone is too small and teeth become crowded, your tongue has less room to move around, which can affect speech. If your teeth are crooked, twisted, or overlapping, it may be difficult to pronounce certain words or sounds.
Indicators of speech problems related to misalignment of teeth include a lisp or whistle when pronouncing certain speech sounds (especially “s” and “t”), as well as a tendency to slur, mumble, or mispronounce words.
Jaw And Head Pain
Misaligned teeth can put a lot of extra strain and pressure on your jaw joints. Over time, the added stress can cause your jaw joints to become irritated or inflamed, which leads to temporomandibular joint disorder or TMJ. This condition causes facial pain, especially when chewing, speaking, or opening the mouth. Clicking, popping, or grating noises when the joint moves are also common, both with or without accompanying pain depending on the severity and the individual.
If you have TMJ, you may feel that your top and bottom teeth don’t align comfortably when you close their mouth. The condition can make it difficult to move your jaw or fully open your mouth. You could also experience headaches or migraines, muscle spasms, and pain in the face, neck, back, and ear. Buzzing, ringing, or numbness in the ear can also occur.
Malocclusions can also make it difficult to chew foods. Many patients with severe malocclusions are unable to consume foods that are tough to bite into or chew. When eating, your teeth and jaw bones are what 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 even impossible.
Proper alignment of your teeth also helps protect you from biting your tongue or cheek. When your jaw is misaligned, accidental biting of these areas is more common. Frequent abrasions can cause significant pain and discomfort, and potentially lead to infection.
Difficulty Breathing And Bad Breath
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. The shape of the mouth, throat, and tongue can contribute to the development of this condition. In some cases, an improperly aligned jaw can cause the tissues of the mouth to block the airway and create an obstruction.
Misalignments also cause bad breath. Although bad breath isn’t a dangerous condition, it can be an embarrassing one. While many people assume that bad breath is caused by poor oral hygiene habits, a number of factors can contribute to it, including misaligned teeth. Known medically as halitosis, bad breath is caused by buildup of bacteria around the teeth and gums, and on the tongue. These bacteria can become trapped when your teeth are crowded or crooked, can make it difficult to brush or floss away.
How Orthodontic Treatment Can Help
Since many of these conditions can be caused by malocclusions, they can often be prevented or remedied through orthodontic treatment. Braces help restore the alignment of the teeth and jaw, which can help eliminate or alleviate symptoms of TMJ, obstructive sleep apnea, and other conditions caused by these misalignments. For some sleep apnea patients, wearing braces can increase the room inside the mouth and reshape their dental arch, significantly improving airflow while they sleep.
Orthodontic treatment can help resolve issues with teeth grinding can jaw clenching—the leading causes of TMJ. The appliances used to retain the effects of your orthodontic treatment, such as a retainer or night guard, can further help to keep these issues at bay. Braces can also help reduce your risk of developing gum disease and halitosis. As teeth ease into a more comfortable alignment, it becomes easier to properly brush and floss them, which can help prevent the buildup of bacteria.
If you think your misaligned teeth may be negatively impacting your health, it’s best to first contact your primary care physician. They can refer you to an orthodontist if they feel orthodontic treatment would be beneficial. Through proper diagnoses and treatment, you can protect and improve both your teeth and your overall physical health.