Goodbye Tinsel Teeth: Adults Now Have More Options When it Comes to Wearing Braces

Pam George

by Pam George | August 17, 2010 @ 10:00AM

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Braces aren't just for kids anymore. Just ask Betsy Chapin, 44, of Denver, Colo. For most of her life, Chapin's crooked teeth made her self-conscious.

"I felt I was attractive only if I wasn't smiling," recalls Chapin, who winced when she watched herself grin in a family video.

Fed up at age 40, she decided to get braces. It wasn't just about appearances, however. Without braces, she most likely would follow in the footsteps of her mother, whose misaligned bite was causing serious dental problems.

"Once I'd made the decision there was no stopping me," she says. "I knew I needed to do this for myself."

Chapin is among the 1 million adults in the United States and Canada who are undergoing orthodontic treatment, according to the American Association of Orthodontists (AAO).

"The number of adult patients continues to grow each and every year," says Dr. Bob Bray, an orthodontist in Atlantic City, N.J., and an AAO board of trustees member.

Reasons vary. Like Chapin, some consider the future health of their teeth. Her mother's crooked bite interfered with chewing. Over time, the repeated stress on certain teeth caused damage that now requires intense dental care.

A bad bite can also cause bone and gum tissue to break down, Bray explains. Wearing braces can mean the difference between keeping your teeth or requiring dentures.

Most patients, however, are concerned with correcting an imperfect smile. And with good reason. More than 92 percent of adults agree that an attractive smile is an important social asset, according to an American Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry survey.

Some people improve minor imperfections with porcelain veneers or bonding. "In those scenarios, you're compensating for a problem – which is fine as long as we know what they're compensating for," says Dr. Ray Rafetto, a Wilmington, Del., orthodontist. "With braces, you're fixing the problem."

Those who worry about being nicknamed "metal mouth" can rest easy. Braces have changed since most adults were teenagers. They are less noticeable and less painful.

"There's an appliance to satisfy each and every adult," Bray says.

Indeed, people may not realize you're wearing braces. Consider new transparent, removable retainers, which are ideal for the image-conscious. Technicians use an impression of the patient's teeth to create a computer-generated treatment plan.

Once approved, the lab follows the plan to create 10 to 32 sets of customized retainers. The patient gets a new one about every other week. Patients can remove the apparatus to eat and brush their teeth.

The devices are more expensive than traditional braces, however. And they're not for everyone, Rafetto notes. The system only corrects mild to moderate crowding or spacing problems; it does not correct an improper bite.

Another option is lingual braces, which are attached to the back or tongue side of the teeth. Although scarcely noticeable, lingual braces can initially irritate the tongue, Bray says. They're also more costly than ceramic brackets.

Just because you go with a less-expensive option doesn't mean you'll sport "tinsel teeth." Clear or enamel-colored ceramic brackets are smaller and less noticeable than the old stainless steel versions. And instead of wrapping around each tooth, ceramic brackets are bonded to the front of the tooth.

Technological advances aren't confined to brackets. Today's high-tech wires are lighter than their older counterparts. Says Bray, "They're very flexible and extremely comfortable."

Old wires required frequent office visits, during which the orthodontist would tighten them. Afterward, patients suffered a period of intense pressure that gradually diminished.

New nickel-titanium wires, which follow the line of the patient's teeth, apply gentle, consistent tension over a long period of time. That means they're less painful. And since there's no pause in pressure, treatment time is often shorter.

Don't expect wonders, however. It still takes time to move tooth through bone, Bray points out.

Whatever appliance style you choose, it's imperative to maintain proper dental hygiene. It's not easy, says Chapin, who dodged into restaurant bathrooms after meals to diligently floss and brush.

"I had to floss with a special floss designed for braces. It took three times as long to do it," she recalls. "No matter how well you brush, you miss particles that get stuck."

Like most adults, Chapin's braces were not covered by insurance. The cost was $4,360 and she spent just over 2 years in braces. (She now wears retainers only at night.) The money and the time have been worth it.

"I smile more confidently than I ever have," she says. "I would do braces all over again if I had to. In my opinion, there's almost nothing you can make a better investment in than the health of your teeth."

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