Remember what Tom Cruise looked like in Top Gun? Fair enough if you don't, that movie is now 26 years old. His smile used to be quite off-centre, so in 2002 he had braces put on to correct his lopsided grin. So, if you've always thought that braces were only for teenagers, think again. The world of orthodontics has a lot to offer adults who desire straighter teeth. It's not necessarily any harder to move teeth after adolescence, and there are subtler options that traditional metal braces.
If you look at how orthodontic tooth movement happens, it makes sense that it would be possible in most healthy people regardless of age. When an orthodontic appliance is used to apply pressure to a tooth, a complex combination of chemicals and cells are activated. The area of bone around the tooth that is under pressure starts to be resorbed, or "eaten away" by the body. The area around the tooth that is under tension starts to fill in with new bone. It's almost like the body clears a path in the bone for the tooth to move into, then rebuilds the space left behind. As long as gentle, continuous pressure is used, this bone remodelling process will continue to allow teeth to move in all sorts of ways.
There are limitations though. Sometimes teeth aren't just crooked, they're crooked for a reason. If the reason is a jaw that is too small, in a child there's the possibility of an orthodontist being able to help guide their jaw growth to create a more favourable platform for straight teeth. This isn't an option in an adult as growth is already complete. In an adult there's also a greater chance there will be conditions present that could make orthodontics complex. Periodontitis, (a form of gum disease), and bone conditions like osteoporosis and Paget's disease may make tooth movement difficult or risky.
When you think about it, there's definite benefits to having orthodontic treatment as an adult as well. Getting a teenager to keep their teeth clean during treatment can be a real uphill battle. Adult patients, however, tend to be much more motivated and will do whatever it takes to get a good result as quickly as possible. Adulthood may also be the first time in someone's life that orthodontics has been within financial reach. It's not an uncommon story to hear of adults who have wanted straight teeth all their lives, but whose parents couldn't afford treatment when they were younger.
The good news is, the business of straightening teeth is no longer all about metal brackets and wires. For someone who doesn't want to broadcast their orthodontic treatment, there are less visible options:
Lingual braces go on the back surfaces of your teeth, out of sight. They do have limited applications though and can make speech difficult, so are not for everyone.
Ceramic brackets are tooth-coloured rather than metallic, so are far less visible than traditional metal train-tracks.
Sequential aligners, as used in the "Invisalign" system, are a series of thin, clear, plastic trays that are manufactured using computer modelling to gradually move your teeth into position. They are much less visible than metal or ceramic braces, but do have some limitations in what they can do.
So, if you ever wanted straighter teeth but thought it was too late, take heart. Tom Cruise did it at 39, then managed to land a beautiful wife 16 years his junior. Would Katie have married Tom with his wonky pre-orthodontic smile? I guess we'll never know. Could adult orthodontics change your life? You'll never know unless you give it a go.