Children with braces have a lot to smile about. The once-popular taunts of “metal mouth” and “tin grin” that haunted braces-wearers for decades are beginning to lose their bite as kids today have many stylish, colorful (dare we say “cool”?) options to choose from when it comes to straightening their teeth. It wasn’t always like this, though.
: 10pt; mso-bidi-font-size: 10.0pt">But before we dig up the history of orthodontia, here's a brief lesson on how braces work. Braces traditionally consist of three pieces:
bands that go around each tooth;
brackets on the fronts of the bands to attach the wire; and
wire, which runs through all the brackets and exerts pressure on the teeth.
: 10pt; mso-bidi-font-size: 10.0pt">The principles of correcting teeth alignment with pressure are ancient: Archeologists have discovered mummies with crude metal bands wrapped around individual teeth, and Hippocrates wrote about straightening teeth in 400 B.C. Early “wires” were made of catgut.
But orthodontics really took off in the early 1900s, when bands, brackets and wires were made of malleable gold. They had to be changed often. Bands were later converted to stainless steel, still the material of choice today.
Baby boomers may remember spacers—rubber inserts that forced teeth apart so that the bands could fit around them—as the most agonizing part of orthodontic treatment. Today’s patients no longer suffer the pain: bands for back teeth are thinner, and high-tech adhesives affix brackets directly onto the surfaces of front teeth. The adhesives can withstand moisture, and some even release fluoride to help protect tooth enamel.
Less obtrusive brackets, including ceramic or plastic ones in clear or tooth-colored tones, have virtually eliminated the “tin grin.” Lingual braces, with brackets bonded behind the teeth, are almost invisible.
Wires are also thinner and less noticeable. They’re often made of alloys of nickel, titanium, copper and cobalt, rather than stainless steel. Heat-activated nickel-titanium wire, developed by NASA, maintains a gradual, precise, gentle pressure and becomes more flexible as the mouth warms up, so braces don’t have to be tightened as often. Manufacturers are working on developing a clear orthodontic wire.
Many younger patients don’t want unobtrusive braces. Some choose colored brackets for front teeth. Ties, which connect the brackets to the corrective wire, “are kind of like jewelry now,” Joondeph notes. “Ninety-nine percent of my younger patients have colored ties to go with the season or sports teams or school colors. Little kids who come in actually want braces; they love to look at the color charts,” he says. “Rubber bands, which are sometimes attached to brackets to pull teeth backward, also come in colors.
Retainers are no longer all roof-of-the-mouth pink: they’re available in glow-in-the-dark shades or emblazoned with logos, emblems or pictures of spiders or snakes.
Some orthodontists, including Ahlin, include a bleach treatment at the end of the orthodontic treatment, making the bleach tray out of the same mold used to make the retainer.
For the latest braces news, check out our Complete Guide to Orthodontics.