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According to the American Association of Orthodontists, an estimated 5 million Americans are undergoing orthodontic care; 1.5 million of those are 18 or older.

While most of us immediately think of braces when we hear the word orthodontist, the fact is these specialized professionals treat several other issues that are not cosmetic — and the work they do is critical for children and adults.

“Orthodontists treat serious medical issues such as jaw alignment,” said Dr. Anthony Puntillo, of Puntillo and Crane Orthodontics in Crown Point. “The misalignment of upper or lower jaws can cause serious medical problems for patients that extend far beyond aesthetics.”

According to Dr. Michael Koufos, of Orthodontic Specialists in St. John, a crossbite means teeth are too close to the tongue or jaw. “It’s a misalignment of your dental arches and can result in other problems such as temporomandibular joint disorder, or TMJ.”

TMJ can be extremely painful, causing migraines and facial pain. The National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research estimates that as many as 10 million Americans suffer from TMJ and its associated maladies.

Misaligned jaws can cause problems with the airway. “If the lower jaw is too far back in its alignment, the result can be a narrow airway,” said Dr. Brenda Stenftenagel, of Braces for all Ages in Portage and Hebron. “A narrow palate and breathing excessively through the mouth are conditions frequently associated with a lower jaw misalignment.”

Sleep apnea can be the result of a narrow airway related to jaw problems. “If jaw misalignment results in breathing irregularities, sleep apnea can be the result. The condition is serious and, in some cases, can cause heart and blood pressure issues,” Koufos said.

An estimated 22 million Americans suffer from some sort of sleep apnea disorder, though it’s not known how many are linked to jaw misalignment.

“These symptoms of airway issues caused by jaw misalignment show up at a young age and can worsen as we get older,” Puntillo said.

“Orthodontics are much more than braces,” Stenftenagel added. “It includes examination, diagnosis, and treatment of the areas that include the jaw, tonsils, the airway, and teeth. That’s why it’s important to have a checkup.”

Orthodontists recommend that children have their first visit around age 7, when teeth and jaw development are still in the early, foundation stage and growth plates can be modified with appliances if needed.

If the first visit was good, a second visit should take place at age 10 to monitor changes.

“This is a significant growing stage for children,” Puntillo said. “The growth plates are forming the adult jaws and teeth, and a checkup will determine if braces or other appliances are needed to help form a correct growth.”

If braces are needed, most children generally get them between the ages of 10 and 14. “At this stage, we have to treat each case individually, depending on how their particular growth plates are developing and how many permanent teeth they have,” Koufos said.

“We don’t want to apply braces too early,” Stenftenagel said. “We also don’t want to wait too long, because then you have to wear them longer to force change. Bringing (patients) in for a routine checkup can help us lay out a plan tailored for the individual.”

Many adults have never been to an orthodontist. Even if your teeth are Hollywood straight, a visit is recommended.

“An exam allows us to check jaw alignment, airways, ask about TMJ or other jaw pain, sleep patterns, and provide an overall examination of the entire area,” Puntillo said. “If you’ve never seen an orthodontist, it would be advisable to schedule an appointment.”

Clenching and grinding of teeth at night is a frequent issue for adults and often arise from a misaligned jaw and a poor bite. “If you have a poor bite, nighttime grinding can cause serious damage by fracturing your teeth,”  Koufos said.

“You want to do everything possible to keep your own teeth,” Stenftenagel said. “If you have a poor bite, straightening out your teeth may help save many of them from fractures.”

Many adults choose clear liner braces to preserve their teeth. Orthodontists also suggest mouthguards or retainers, depending on the situation. A healthy diet and a reduction in sugar intake also help.

For the little ones, recommendations include no thumb- or finger-sucking, no pacifiers, a healthy diet with crunchy food, and little or no added sugar.

The AAO encourages parents to think of an orthodontist as part of your family’s medical team, not an emergency specialist. Don’t go see one after the fact, when the treatment is more expensive and the correction more difficult. Take the kids when they are young and show them how easy it is with your own checkup.

Your teeth will thank you.

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