How Orthodontic Treatment Works

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Dental Braces

When you think of orthodontics, you probably think of braces. These shiny metal brackets and wires have been used for decades. They can fix crooked teeth and other bite problems. But, they're not the only option. Several other devices also can be used, alone or in combination.


Braces are the most common orthodontic treatment. They involve brackets or bands glued to the teeth and connected by wires. The wires apply pressure to the teeth to change their position. An orthodontist adjusts these wires now and then to make them tighter and more effective. Over time, this tension gradually shifts your teeth to create a pleasing alignment. 

In addition to the cosmetic effects, braces correct the functional problems caused by an abnormal bite, crowded teeth, and jaw misalignment, all of which can make chewing and speaking difficult. 

Traditional braces are made of stainless steel. They can also be made from other materials, such as plastic and ceramic. They can be clear or the same color as your teeth to make them less visible. In some cases, the orthodontist can attach braces to the back of the teeth.


Headgear is sometimes used along with braces to align the jaw and straighten teeth. This device applies additional pressure to help correct bite problems. Headgear also supports the growth of the face and jaw. Unlike braces, it's removable. 

Headgear usually has two prongs that are inserted into small cylinders on the bands of the back molars. An elastic strap wraps around the back of the head to keep the device in place. Headgear usually is worn at night during sleep. The orthodontist will explain when it should be worn and for how long.

Clear Aligners

Some people with minor to moderate problems may be candidates for clear aligners like Invisalign® instead of braces. These are clear, thin plastic trays that are molded to fit your teeth like a glove. Your orthodontist’s office creates a series of trays that you wear over time. Each tray shifts your teeth just a fraction of a millimeter at a time. Most people wear a tray for a few weeks before switching to a new one. The exact number of trays you need and how long the correction will take depend on the severity of your condition. 

You must wear the aligners every day, usually up to 20 hours a day. You take them out to eat and to brush and floss your teeth.


Once teeth are aligned, wearing a retainer helps make sure they'll stay in place. That's because everyday things like chewing and swallowing apply force to the teeth and can cause them to shift back out of alignment. This is called dental relapse. It occurs into the adult years as well. A retainer helps your teeth keep their new placement. It also allows the bone around the teeth to stabilize. 

This device consists of a plastic plate with a metal wire. The plate is custom made to fit your mouth. Some retainers are fixed. Others can be taken out, usually during the day. To work, retainers must be worn routinely. 

Porcelain Veneers 

For those interested in minor changes to their teeth, porcelain veneers may be an option. This treatment involves thin layers of ceramic applied to the teeth. A dentist first makes room for the veneers by removing a small amount of the original tooth enamel. The veneers are then permanently bonded to the teeth.

Porcelain veneers can address minor problems, such as gaps between teeth. They may also be an option for those who want to change the shape, size or color of their teeth.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 Mar 31
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.

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  2. Braces: Straighter teeth can improve oral health. American Dental Association.

  3. Braces. American Dental Association.

  4. Porcelain Veneers. American Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry.

  5. Dental Health and Orthodontic Problems. American Academy of Pediatrics. 

  6. Orthodontics at any age. Canadian Dental Association. 

  7. Orthodontics: Braces...for me? California Dental Association.

  8. Why You Should Get Orthodontic Treatment. American Association of Orthodontists.

  9. Orthodontics and Clear Aligners. American Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry.