If you have braces, you’re not alone. About 5 million Americans wear these dental devices—and about 70 percent of them are kids or teens. Braces correct problems that occur when teeth are out of place. The idea isn’t new: Dentists have been using braces to straighten teeth for the past 200 years!
The most common type of braces consists of metal brackets glued to teeth. These brackets are connected by a curved wire often made of nickel titanium. This alloy, or metal mixture, is flexible, so the wire can be bent to attach to each bracket. The alloy also reacts to the heat of a person’s mouth, causing the wire to slowly return to its original shape. This movement puts pressure on the teeth, gradually changing their position and that of the underlying jawbones they’re attached to. “The teeth are like a house and the bones are the foundation,” explains Dr. Brent Larson. He’s an orthodontist—a dentist who specializes in aligning teeth—and professor at the University of Minnesota. “To have a nice straight house, you need a good foundation underneath.”
When a person’s top and bottom sets of teeth don’t fit together, the teeth can wear down and lose enamel. Without this hard, protective outer layer, a person can develop tooth decay. Crooked or overlapping teeth can also be hard to brush and floss, which can lead to cavities and gum disease. That’s why braces aren’t just cosmetic. “The goal of having braces is to end up with a beautiful, healthy smile,” says Larson.