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When is the right time to get braces?

Braces are a rite of passage for many teenagers, but patients of any age can seek straighter teeth.

Whether you’re considering braces for your child or for yourself, braces can have different results. Can you be too young or too old to get braces? And what kind of alternatives to braces exist for adults that want a nicer smile?

How do braces work?

Braces work by shifting teeth gradually over time to correct several types of dental issues such as:

  • Crooked teeth
  • Overbite
  • Underbite
  • Overcrowding

Braces correct these concerns over a period of several months or years and require continual management by a dentist or orthodontist. 

After the first consultation and fitting, you or your child will generally need to return to the dentist or orthodontist for tightening and checkups every month.

How long do braces stay on?

Most patients must wear braces from 18 to 30 months.1 Since this orthodontic treatment requires time for teeth to move and realign, faster treatments aren’t typical. Even complex orthodontic treatments are complete within 30 months, although longer procedures are possible.

While there are programs that allow people to straighten teeth on their own, most orthodontics do not recommend doing this. According to an article from Bloomberg News2, The American Association of Orthodontists, which represents about 19,000 members in the U.S. and abroad, issued a consumer alert in 2018 warning against direct-to-patient orthodontic companies that provide consulting “without an in-person, pre-treatment evaluation or ongoing in-person supervision from a medical professional.” 

Changes to treatment plans and the need for dental surgery or other major dental work are the most frequent causes of longer procedures. Having a trained professional you can meet with on a regular basis can ensure your treatment is done right the first time and with the care and attention a dentist can bring.

After braces, most patients must wear a retainer to keep the teeth from shifting back into place. Your dentist will assess whether you need to wear a retainer all day, only at night, or weekly.

Types of braces

The most common braces have metal brackets that an orthodontist bonds to the front of your teeth. Bands completely wrap around your teeth, keeping the wires in place. There are also lingual braces, which bond to the backs of your teeth and are much less noticeable. Both of these types of braces3 rely on wires for tightening and straightening.

While metal braces fuse to your teeth and can only be removed by a trained professional, you can also get plastic braces that are less permanent. These transparent braces generally come in a tray format and fit around your upper or lower teeth. 

Instead of using wires to make your teeth straighter, your orthodontist fashions a newly aligned tray every few weeks. You also typically take out these trays periodically. However, it is important to keep in mind that these clear trays are used for teens and adults, but not children.

When should kids get braces?

For kids, the most common window for standard braces is between 10 and 14 years old. Dentists often find this range ideal because kids of these ages have generally lost their baby teeth and already have their 12-year molars. 

Since preteens and teens are still growing, however, their teeth are more receptive to the sometimes intensive manipulation and realignment that braces perform. 

Treatment plans for your child’s dental issues

Since your dentist will design a treatment plan that addresses your child’s specific dental needs and issues, braces can vary from patient to patient. If your child suffers from a significant underbite, overbite, or severe overcrowding, your dentist might decide that your child is a candidate for early intervention.4 This early intervention typically consists of two types of treatments: Phase I and Phase II treatments.

Phase I: Early intervention

Phase I is generally geared toward children between ages 7 and 10 who don’t yet have all their adult teeth. At this stage, braces aren’t typically involved. Instead, most of the issues that dentists and orthodontists address during this phase relate to structural and skeletal problems.

Intervention at this point can also reduce the level of dental surgery necessary during your child’s teenage years and can also decrease bullying that results from particularly crooked teeth. These problems are also generally easier to correct when a child is younger.

Phase II: Active treatment

After Phase I, most patients wear a retainer to enable teeth to continue growing and moving in a healthy direction. Phase II then usually consists of a full set of braces. Although some patients might have to wear braces for a standard length of time, many who have already undergone Phase I can look forward to a shorter treatment time during Phase II.

How young is too young for braces?

In some cases, starting and completing this orthodontic treatment too early can have unwanted consequences. While most children have all their adult teeth by age 14, that age milestone doesn’t mean kids stop growing. Children who continue to grow for many years after they have had braces might need an extra orthodontic treatment as teenagers or later in their young adult years.

Many dentists recommend that patients undergo an evaluation for braces5 by age 7. Since this age is generally when early intervention treatments start, this age is the ideal age for parents to begin to understand what’s in store for their child’s orthodontic future. Receiving braces before age 6, however, is rare and generally not recommended.

Braces for adults

Kids and teenagers are by far the most common patients to receive braces, but that age commonality doesn’t mean adults can’t benefit from this orthodontic treatment, too. In fact, about 20 percent of patients undergoing braces are older than age 18.6 

Many adult patients choose to pursue a straighter smile for several reasons, such as:

  • Missing out on the opportunity to get braces as children
  • Had braces as kids but have had shifting teeth as adults 
  • Need help correcting structural or skeletal issues later in life

Whatever the reason, braces can benefit adult patients as much as children.

How old is too old for braces?

In most cases, no age is too old for braces if the patient’s gums and teeth are healthy. In fact, older patients have more of a need for braces now than they may have before. Since many adults keep their teeth longer7 than their parents did, maintaining a healthy smile and a functional bite is necessary.

How else can adults improve their smiles?

While the various types of braces are the only way to straighten your smile while fixing structural problems, some adult patients opt for veneers instead. Your dentist can install these porcelain layers over your existing teeth, resulting in an improved smile. 

Since veneers don’t move your teeth or address structural problems, however, these devices aren’t an alternative to braces for patients who need significant dental adjustments.

How insurance helps with paying for braces

When determining the proper timeline for braces, each patient is different. 

Patients under 18 are more likely to have at least partial dental insurance coverage for braces. If the braces will help correct jaw misalignment or if braces would improve their ability to eat, for instance, there is a likely chance braces will have more coverage. Conversely, if the braces are for purely aesthetic reasons, then you may have more out of pocket costs. 

Other considerations you may have to think about when looking at how dental insurance will cover the cost of braces include:

  • Waiting periods - If you are looking to get braces right away, but don’t have dental insurance, you could have a waiting period after enrolling in dental insurance. Be sure to enroll ahead of time to avoid a delay.
  • Changing insurance plans - If your child is undergoing orthodontic care and you change insurance plans before the effective date, they may become an out of pocket cost to you. 
  • Annual caps on coverage - The cost of braces may fulfill or exceed your annual cap on services, so it is important to consider this if you think your child may have other dental treatments such as preventive cleanings or X-rays.

If you are looking for adult braces, you may have to pay more out of pocket costs than you would for a child under 18. However, there are some insurance plans for adult braces8 available, so it is important to shop around well in advance and ask questions of the insurance company that can help you determine what kind of costs are covered versus what you may pay. Like plans that cover children under 18, insurance for adult braces may come with its own annual caps, waiting periods, and percentages of services covered.

Be sure to find a dentist or orthodontist who takes your family’s long-term oral health into consideration, and you and your family members can enjoy a lifetime of beautifully straight, healthy teeth.

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1. (Last accessed January 2020)
2. (Last accessed January 2020)
3. (Last accessed January 2020)
4. (Last accessed January 2020)
5. (Last accessed January 2020)
6. (Last accessed January 2020)
7. (Last accessed January 2020)
8. (Last accessed January 2020)

Brought to you by The Guardian Life Insurance Company of America (Guardian), New York, NY. Material discussed is meant for general illustration and/or informational purposes only and it is not to be construed as tax, legal, investment or medical advice.

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