Less visible solutions to new smiles.
October is National Orthodontic Health Awareness Month. As new “invisible” technology has expanded and improved, it’s becoming more and more common for adults to seek orthodontic treatment. Research shows that having a “good bite” can improve dental health and prevent the need for dentures later in life.
As a child, Tina McDermott received dental advice that was commonly given in the ‘80s. “My teeth weren’t horribly crooked,” she says, “so my dentist told my mom that I didn’t need braces, and that I could keep my wisdom teeth.”
Once considered to be primarily cosmetic, orthodontic treatment is now seen as a way to preserve dental health.
A couple of years ago, McDermott’s dentist suggested that in addition to getting her wisdom teeth pulled, she should consider braces to avoid future dental problems. “I’d always wished my teeth were straighter and that I didn’t have an overbite,” she says, “but I didn’t seriously consider treatment until I learned I might need dentures if I didn’t.”
According to a 2013 patient survey by the American Association of Orthodontists (AAO), the number of adults undergoing orthodontic treatment is on the rise. Nationally, adults now comprise more than 20 percent of orthodontic patients. Orthodontist Dr. Charles Cooley says adults make up about 40 percent of his practice. Half these adults are self-referrals.
“They’ve already gotten treatment for their kids, and have decided it’s their turn,” says Cooley. The other half are referred by dentists who see a breakdown of dentition resulting from a poor bite. “When I correct the bite,” says Cooley, “ the longevity of dental restorations, such as crowns and caps, will be greater.”
Dental health and cosmetic appearance are not separate issues. Orthodontist Dr. Scott Hood says, “The understanding of what orthodontic treatment can do, both aesthetically and functionally, has increased among the general public as well as the dental community. Today there is much collaboration among dentists, orthodontists, periodontists, and oral surgeons to ensure a healthy and cosmetically appealing outcome for the patient.”
While conceding that patients are often motivated by appearance, Cooley adds, “There’s rarely a treatment I will do purely for cosmetic reasons. I want to treat the patient for function. The better your teeth function, the better position they’re in, and the better it’s going to look.”
Adults who seek orthodontic treatment may come with specific concerns, or even fears. Number one, Cooley says, is pain. “Adults still remember when their friends went in to have their wires tied, and all the headgear,” he says. “But the new technology and new metals have changed all that.” Innovations such as temperature-sensitive wires, gradual computer-generated adjustments, and temporary anchoring devices (TADs), have made severe mouth pain and bloody gums things of the past. And often such high-tech wizardry means less time in the chair, and more time between visits.
The AAO survey suggests that 70 percent of adults are concerned about the appearance of braces and other dental appliances. But such apprehensions tend to dissipate quickly once the patient begins treatment. Orthodontia has become much less conspicuous over the last few decades, and a plethora of “invisible” options has brought more adults to the office. In addition to traditional metal braces, orthodontists offer: ceramic/clear brackets designed to blend better with tooth color, lingual braces positioned on the back (tongue side) of teeth, and clear aligners, which are custom-made removable “trays.”
Orthodontic treatment can often remain a “secret” between patient and provider—until friends notice the new and improved smile! This new accepted form of freshening up a look has even hit the small screen, playing a part of plot lines within several episodes of Bravo’s Odd Mom Out, in which Jill agrees to getting Invisalign with her ten-year-old daughter.
There are financial concerns as well. The average cost of orthodontic treatment is $4500-$6500. Even with dental insurance, the patient’s out-of-pocket expense can be significant.
Hood says, “A few patients pay up front, but most make monthly payments based on treatment time as well as treatment costs. Most orthodontists offer in-house financing, as well as ‘CareCredit’ type financing options.”
McDermott stresses the importance of interviewing several orthodontists before choosing one. Most provide a free consultation, during which the prospective patient receives a comprehensive exam, diagnosis, options for treatment, and answers to any questions. Hood says online sources can provide good preparation.
“The higher the patient’s dental IQ, the better they understand the process and what to expect during treatment as well as the final outcome,” he says.
As for McDermott’s outcome? “ I couldn’t be happier,” she says. “My treatment is coming to a close, and my teeth look so much better. They’re straight, and even more important, healthy. It’s no small thing to keep your teeth for life!”
Questions to Ask the Orthodontist at Your First Visit:
- What potential problems have you identified?
- What is the likely outcome if I choose not to have treatment?
- What treatment options do I have?
- Please describe the treatment plan(s), step by step.
- How long will treatment take?
- What outcome can I reasonably expect?
- What is the total cost of treatment? How much will my insurance cover? Do you offer a payment plan for the remainder?