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Going to the Orthodontist

Every other week, Joey's friend Vinnie goes to the orthodontist after school to have his braces checked. One day the dentist told Joey's mom that Joey should see an orthodontist, too. What's an orthodontist? Why does Joey need to see one? And what will happen at the appointment?

What's an Orthodontist?

Just like baseball and gymnastics are types of sports, an orthodontist (say: or-thoh-don-tist) is a type of dentist. Using braces, retainers, and other devices, an orthodontist helps straighten a person's teeth and correct the way the jaws line up.

Straight teeth and aligned jaws create nice smiles. On top of that, when your jaws and teeth are well aligned, it's easier to chew food. Orthodontic care can even help prevent snoring!

So why would you go to the orthodontist? Your dentist or one of your parents might recommend it because they see a problem with your teeth or jaws. Or a kid who doesn't like the way his or her teeth look might ask to see an orthodontist.

Orthodontists treat kids for many problems, including having crowded or overlapping teeth or having problems with jaw growth and tooth development. These tooth and jaw problems may be caused by tooth decay, losing baby teeth too soon, accidents, or habits like thumb sucking. These problems also can be genetic or inherited, meaning that they run in a person's family.

When Should a Kid Go to the Orthodontist?

There's no set age for a kid to visit the orthodontist — some kids go when they're 6, some kids go when they're 10, and some go while they're teens. Even adults visit the orthodontist for treatment. Many orthodontists say a kid should see an orthodontist before age 7 so any problems can be spotted early. That doesn't mean a kid will get braces right away. But the orthodontist will know which problems exist and can choose the best time to start treatment.

What Happens at the Orthodontist?

When you make your first trip to the orthodontist, you'll visit an office that looks a lot like your dentist's office. You'll sit in a dentist chair and the orthodontic technician or assistant might take X-rays or computer pictures of your mouth and teeth. The X-rays and pictures show the orthodontist where the teeth are positioned and whether you have teeth that haven't come in yet.

The technician also may make a mold (or impression) of your teeth by pressing a tray of gooey material into your top and bottom teeth. When the mold is removed, there will be a perfect impression of the shape and size of your teeth. A mold helps the orthodontist decide how to straighten your teeth.

The orthodontist will examine your teeth, mouth, and jaws. He or she may ask you to open wide or bite your teeth together and might ask questions about whether you have problems chewing or swallowing or whether your jaws ever click or pop when you open your mouth. The orthodontist may tell you and your parent that your teeth and jaws are fine, or recommend that you begin treatment.

What Do Braces Do?

Braces correct how your teeth line up by putting steady pressure on the teeth, which eventually moves them into a straighter position. A retainer also applies pressure to your teeth, and it may be used to hold your teeth in a straight position after wearing braces.

Sometimes the orthodontist may recommend that you have one or more teeth removed to create more space in your mouth. If you need to have teeth removed, the dentist will give you medicine to keep you comfortable during the procedure.

Once your braces are on, you'll visit the orthodontist every few weeks. It's important to remember that you still need to get regular dental checkups during this time to have your teeth cleaned and checked for cavities. On some visits, the orthodontist may simply check to make sure that your braces are in place as they should be. At other visits, the orthodontist may adjust wires on the braces to move the teeth into position. The orthodontist may show you how to wear rubber bands, which are stretched between two teeth and help to correct the way your teeth line up.

Some kids also may need to wear other devices, such as headgear. You may have seen kids who have headgear, which gets its name from the fact that it's worn around the head. Headgear uses a horseshoe-shaped wire, which attaches to back teeth. It's designed to apply pressure that pushes the back teeth back, allowing more room for teeth in the front of the mouth.

You can expect to feel a little uncomfortable sometimes when you wear braces or other orthodontic devices. Your mom or dad can give you a pain reliever if it hurts. And the orthodontist usually provides wax you can use to cover any sharp spots on the braces that are bothering you or are rubbing against the inside of your mouth or gums.

How Long Will I Have to Go to the Orthodontist?

Braces can be worn for different lengths of time, but most people wear them for 1 to 3 years. After the braces are removed, many kids need to wear a retainer for a while to keep their teeth in place. During this time, you'll still need to visit the orthodontist regularly. Every kid wears a retainer for a different length of time. But the good news is, by the time you're wearing a retainer, you'll be smiling a super smile!

Reviewed by: Kenneth H. Hirsch, DDS
Date reviewed: November 2009

Kids Health

Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.

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