Today, one out of four orthodontic patients in the US and Canada is age 18 or over. One million adults are undergoing orthodontic treatment, according to current estimates. "Some of the increase in numbers of adults getting braces is due to the current physical fitness trend," says Dianne Rekow, DDS, PhD(left), chair of the department of Orthodontics at UMDNJ-New Jersey Dental School. "People want to be in shape and look their best. They're losing weight, exercising, and getting their teeth fixed."
Some adults seek orthodontic treatment simply because they want a more attractive smile. Others suffer from a variety of correctable dental problems. Malocclusion, often referred to as a "bad bite," is a technical term that describes crooked, crowded, or protruding teeth that do not fit together properly.
Malocclusions are usually hereditary, but can also be acquired through thumb sucking, premature loss of teeth, injury to the mouth or other medical problems. If not corrected, malocclusions may cause grinding and abnormal wear of tooth surfaces, periodontal disease (disease of the tissues supporting and surrounding the teeth), and eventual tooth loss.
Neglect is another cause of dental problems in adulthood. "We treat many adult patients who have neglected their teeth and haven't seen a dentist in years," says clinical assistant professor John Sopchak, DDS. "Now that it's more acceptable for adults to have braces, they come to the orthodontic clinic. Sometimes treatment is relatively simple. Other times, a multi-step process is required to restore the mouth."
The orthodontic clinic is the clinical training site for the school's three-year graduate program in orthodontics. Residents treat approximately 1,000 patients each year at the clinic, under the supervision of attending faculty. Upon graduation, they receive a Master of Science degree. Patients pay about half of the customary fees for private orthodontic treatment.
While many conditions can be corrected with braces during adulthood, others may require surgery as well. "Childhood is the ideal time for orthodontic treatment, because the jaw is still growing, and you can work with that growth," says clinical associate professor Anthony L. Maganzini, DMD. "With adults, the jaw and facial bones are no longer growing, so treatment may be more involved and take longer."
Thanks to new techniques and technology, the term "metal mouth" has become obsolete. New composites and other lightweight materials make braces less obtrusive and more comfortable. In the past, metal bands were wrapped around each tooth and cemented in place. Now, tiny brackets are bonded directly to the teeth. The brackets may be metal, clear or white, to blend in with the teeth. They hold wires that are thinner, stronger and more flexible than those used in the past.