For many years, braces were advertised chiefly for cosmetic purposes, assuring people that a beautiful smile full of straight, pearly-white teeth would enhance their professional and personal lives, and give them a greater sense of confidence and self-esteem.
Some experts even reported that straighter teeth and aligned jaws had far-reaching psychological benefits, helping people overcome depression and social anxiety.
While many testimonials will confirm this theory, the hard science supports a different reason that people with malocclusions or misalignments should wear braces to straighten their teeth.
Misaligned teeth, or jaw bones, can lead to a variety of medical problems, such as chronic pain, sleep disorders, and infections.
For this reason, the American Association of Orthodontists recommends children visit an orthodontist by age 7. As important as it is to look good in their second-grade class photos, the real goal is to treat or prevent underlying structural issues that could later affect dental or physical health.
Orthodontics has the potential to correct or aid in the improvement of a variety of conditions, including:
- Gum disease and tooth decay
- Speech impediments
- Jaw or TMJ pain
- Grinding or clenching of the teeth
- Difficulty chewing and eating
- Sleep apnea caused by mouth breathing and snoring
However, note that you should first see a physician if you or your child are experiencing medical symptoms. He or she can refer you to an orthodontist, or you can ask specifically whether orthodontic work could be beneficial.
Gum Disease & Tooth Decay
If you or your child have a condition known as “crowding” of the teeth, you are at a higher risk for gum disease and tooth decay than someone with adequate spacing. Crowding means that there is not enough room for your teeth to fit into their correct positions. In minor cases, it can cause rotation of teeth and some overlapping, and in severe instances, it can cause teeth to become lodged in the jaw bone.
At the very least, crowding makes it difficult to brush and floss teeth correctly, which increases the likelihood of resulting tooth decay or gingivitis. Tooth decay leads to cavities that the dentist must fill in order to protect the teeth.
Gingivitis is inflammation of the part of your gum that comes in contact with your teeth. It is important to take the health of your gums seriously, because gingivitis, if left untreated, can evolve into the more serious periodontal disease, which can destroy the bone that supports your teeth, ultimately causing tooth loss
Misalignments of the jaw and teeth can actually trigger a variety of speech problems, as the mouth is unable to physically form the right shape to produce proper sounds.
Indicators speech problems relating to misalignment of teeth often include a lisp or whistle when pronouncing certain speech sounds (especially “s” and “t”), as well as a tendency to slur or mumble. If you or your child struggles with what might seem like a speech impediment or delay, consider a visit to the orthodontist (in addition to a medical doctor to rule out other underlying causes).
Orthodontic issues are most likely to affect speech problems in individuals who suffer from severe bruxism (jaw clenching and grinding), gaps between the teeth or an open bite (the upper and lower teeth extend forward from the jaw and do not fit together optimally when the mouth is closed).
One disclaimer: initially, applying braces might worsen speech difficulties as your mouth adjusts. This is perfectly normal and should be temporary. If your clarity of speech is compromised because of an abnormal dental profile, you should see great results once the braces come off.
Whether the sole cause of a speech impairment or an exacerbating factor to a speech disorder, proper diagnosis and correction of orthodontic issues during a patient’s developmental years makes it much easier to eliminate any dental problems associated with poor speech habits.
TMJ or Jaw Disorders
A disorder of the temporomandibular joint (often referred to as TMJ) is an inflammation of the jaw joint that causes facial pain—and often neck and shoulder tenderness—especially when sufferers chew, open their mouths and speak. Some TMJ patients will actually experience inhibited jaw movement and not be able to open their mouths to a normal degree.
Clicking, popping, or grating noises when the joint moves are also extremely common, both with or without accompanying pain depending on the severity and the individual. Many TMJ patients report that their bite feels off—their top and bottom teeth don’t seem to align comfortably when they close their mouths.
These symptoms foster a vicious cycle in which the abnormal bite causes the teeth to grind and jaw to clench and puts significant stress on the joint, and surrounding muscle and tissue, which can actually cause TMJ as well as be a symptom of it. If the bite is the culprit, wearing braces often is an effective treatment for this disorder.
Teeth Grinding and Jaw Clenching
Teeth grinding and jaw clenching (the leading causes of TMJ) are also two of the most common issues that are solved by braces, as the teeth ease into a more comfortable alignment.
Even patients whose teeth are relatively straight might still want to get braces to fix small discrepancies in the bite that could be related to TMJ.
The appliances used to retain the effects of your orthodontic treatment can also help to keep TMJ at bay, such as the use of a retainer or night guard.
Difficulty Chewing and Eating
If you are having difficulty chewing your food, a bite problem is most likely to blame. The good news is that orthodontic work can correct a bite abnormality and restore normal eating.
- Underbite: The lower jaw extends out, causing the lower front teeth to sit in front of the upper front teeth. An underbite, when not treated in time, can cause a host of other bite-related problems.
- 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( Anterior and Posterior) : Forms as a result of an untreated underbite or overbite. In a crossbite, the teeth and, or jaw are not aligned properly and cannot move normally. It is common for patients to have to move their upper jaw to one side just to be able to open or close their mouth.
- Openbite: Misalignment creates a large space between the upper and lower teeth. This can cause severe chewing issues and may cause a number of unwanted habits, such as tongue thrusting and thumb sucking.
- Misaligned Dental Midlines: Caused when the back bite does not fit and match appropriately, which may negatively impact jaw and proper dental function.
Sleep apnea is a condition describing breathing restrictions that occur during sleep, lowering blood oxygen to potentially dangerous levels.
Often the shape of the mouth, throat, and tongue can contribute to the development of this condition. This is where an orthodontist potentially comes in.
Some sleep apnea patients can be aided by orthodontic work. For some of these patients, wearing braces can increase the room inside the mouth and reshape their dental arch, significantly improving airflow while they sleep.
Ear pain can take on a variety of forms, from dull and achy, to sharp, to throbbing or burning. Most people who experience ear pain, or have children who do, assume the presence of an ear infection. But when the doctor is not able to find evidence of infection upon examination, dental issues could be involved.
Ear pain can result from dental disorders for a number of reasons. A malocclusion or improper bite, as well as teeth grinding and TMJ, can all put undue pressure on jaw muscles, resulting in pain and tenderness that radiates into the ear.
When the muscles and the joints are out of sync, you may experience pain that can radiate from your temples down to your neck, and include pain in your ear. In some cases, the pain in the ear is more pronounced, leading patients to believe the cause is rooted in the ear.
Any form of accident or trauma to the neck or head also can cause joint displacement leading to ear pain as a featured symptom.
With orthodontic correction, it is possible that you will find relief from chronic ear pain if the source was due to an irritation of the jaw.
Malocclusions can be a contributing cause for chronic headaches. If your chronic headache is accompanied by facial pain or pain in the teeth or jaw, it may benefit from orthodontic correction.
When the teeth are not properly aligned, they create strain and pressure on the jaw bones and joints, which can lead to chronic headaches as the muscles spasm and the joints inflame. When your teeth do not fit together properly, they overcompensate causing strain and pain.
Malocclusion can be identified at an early age, which can mean that early treatment may prevent chronic headaches and other issues from ever happening. However, more and more adults are opting for orthodontic treatment to relieve pain from chronic headaches and other health problems. The proper alignment of the bite will lessen the strain and pressure of the overworked jaw, alleviating many painful triggers.