In any given year, 4 million tweens and teens are in the process of having their teeth straightened with braces or clear aligners. It's so common we tend to consider orthodontic treatment for young people as a rite of passage into adulthood.
But it doesn't necessarily have to be that way—it might be possible to stop or at least minimize a poor bite before it fully develops. That's the goal of interceptive orthodontics—treatments that head off or “intercept” a bite problem early.
The goal isn't necessarily to reposition misaligned teeth, but to correct a problem that can lead to misalignment. Here are some examples.
A narrow jaw. A narrowly developing jaw can crowd incoming teeth out of their normal positions. For the upper jaw, though, we can take advantage of a temporary separation in the bones in the roof of the mouth (palate) with a device called a palatal expander. Placed against the palate, the expander exerts outward pressure on the teeth and jaw to widen this separation. The body fills in the gap with bone to gradually widen the jaw.
Abnormal jaw alignment. It's possible for a jaw to develop abnormally during childhood so that it extends too far beyond the other. Using a hinged device called a Herbst appliance, it's possible to interrupt this abnormal growth pattern and influence the bones and muscles of the jaw to grow in a different way.
Missing primary teeth. An important role for a primary (baby) tooth is to hold a place for the future permanent tooth. But if the primary tooth is lost too soon, other teeth can drift into the space and crowd out the intended permanent tooth. To prevent this, we can insert a space maintainer: This simple looped metal device prevents teeth from drifting and preserves the space for the permanent tooth.
Although these and other interceptive treatments are effective, some like the palatal expander do their best work within a limited age frame. To take advantage of interceptive orthodontics in a timely manner, parents should seek a bite evaluation for their child from an orthodontist around age 6. The earlier we detect a growing bite problem, the greater your chances for successful intervention.
If you would like more information on treating emerging bite problems early, please contact us or schedule an appointment for a consultation. You can also learn more about this topic by reading the Dear Doctor magazine article “Interceptive Orthodontics.”