Technological Advancements Make Orthodontia Less About Pain, More About Gain

Adult orthodontia isn't as scary as it once used to be
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“I had braces as a kid, but [later] needed jaw surgery to correct my bite,” says Sofia, 30, an academic librarian in Seattle. She was in her early 20s when she decided against that procedure, but last summer she bit the bullet and, with the help of her parents, paid for the surgery. After a three-part treatment that spanned almost two years and included plastic aligner trays, surgery and ceramic braces, Sofia finally has the smile she missed out on as a teen.

Sofia is part of a growing trend. Vastly improved dental technology, from nearly invisible tooth-straightening options to drill-free laser fillings and 3-D scanning, is driving adults to the dentist and orthodontist—voluntarily—in droves. “Your smile is your first ‘hello’ to the world,” says Mary Young, executive director of the Seattle-based Institute for Oral Health (iohwa.org), “A healthy smile boosts overall health and self-confidence.”

That smile is easier to achieve at any age now, says Seattle-based orthodontist Greg Vaughn (landvortho.com), whose oldest patients have been in their late 80s but who has treated people at every age (50 percent of his clients are adults, so there’s no bubble-gum-flavored fluoride—unless you request it). And it’s not just adults fulfilling teenage dreams, but those whose teeth shift with age.

The biggest difference between adult and teen orthodontic treatments is time: Adults may be in for a longer haul, since they don’t have the benefit of a still-growing jaw to speed the process. But a recently developed device, AcceleDent, accelerates tooth movement by using a small, vibrating mouthpiece 20 minutes a day. Vaughn has seen a reduction in treatment time of between 40 and 50 percent with the appliance, making it possible for many adults to complete orthodontic treatment in 6–12 months.

If you do opt for dental hardware, your options are light years beyond the tinsel teeth or headgear of yesteryear. With choices that include clear ceramic brackets engineered to be barely noticeable (no clunky metal in sight), lingual braces that attach to the back of the teeth so as to be practically invisible, and clear braces that consist of plastic aligner trays that can be removed for eating and cleaning, more than 1 million adults in the U.S. are reworking their pearly whites, according to the American Association of Orthodontists.

Orthodontic work, once prescribed primarily to children, now draws folks who weren’t able to get the procedures done as children, those who need to fix bad orthodontic work from childhood or solve age-related crowding issues—and those who simply want to upgrade their smile. Depending on the type you choose, expect treatment to cost as much as $10,000 without insurance.

Also increasingly popular are medical-grade veneers—thin porcelain or composite coverings that go over your natural teeth. Veneers can be a completely different shape or size than the natural tooth, depending on your preference and the look you’re going for (some dentists recommend bringing in photos of teeth you admire so you can have them matched), and are popular especially in cases where whitening doesn’t work or if tooth damage is severe. Veneers range from $250 to $2,500 per tooth and last anywhere from five to 15 years, depending on the material used.

And while it should go without saying, don’t try this at home, no matter how tempting it seems. A surge in DIY orthodontia, with people using rubber hair bands costing less than $5 and online instructions to treat gaps in their teeth, recently prompted the American Association for Orthodontists to issue a consumer alert; the University of Washington Orthodontics Department chair, Dr. Greg Huang, told KOMO News in February that without X-rays, exams and monitoring, expensive complications can result.
Although a glass of wine before treatment is still not an option (the American Dental Association debunked that too-good-to-be-true rumor), going to the dentist has become a lot more comfortable, even when you’re—ahem—a bit longer in the tooth.