When our dentist told us Jim and Nora needed braces, we just took them straight to the orthodontist and signed them up for treatments — we didn’t even think twice about it. On the other hand, their treatments haven’t been especially dire — neither child needed “headgear,” for example. I know people who’ve had elaborate, painful gear, requiring horrific hand-cranking and years of dreaded visits to the orthodontist, beginning as early as the second grade. It does make you wonder: is it all worth it?
A new study suggests that it may not be. Researchers followed a group of children for 20 years following dentists’ recommendation of orthodontia. Some of the kids had gotten braces, but others had not. Here are their results:
Orthodontic treatment, in the form of braces placed on children’s teeth in childhood, had little positive impact on their psychological health and quality of life in adulthood.
Further, a lack of orthodontic treatment in childhood did not lead to psychological difficulties in later life for those children where a need was identified but no treatment received.
It can be concluded that, although in general participants’ self-esteem increased over the 20-year period, it was not as a result of receiving braces and didn’t relate to whether an orthodontic treatment need existed in 1981. This runs contrary to the widespread belief among dentists that orthodontic treatment improves psychological well-being, for which there is very little evidence.
There was some evidence that those who had their teeth straightened felt better about their teeth, but that was it — for the most part the braces made no difference. I do wonder, however, whether changing attitudes about braces may mean that if we began a new, similar study today, we’d find a different result. When I was in school in the 70s and 80s, lots of kids had braces, but lots did not. Today, it seems, nearly every child ends up getting braces. Twenty years from now, will crooked teeth be a greater stigma than they are today?