More adults are opting for orthodontic treatment than ever before. According to the American Association of Orthodontics, adults make up 25% of orthodontic patients, often looking to make up for treatment they didn’t receive as a child. Maybe your family didn’t have the money for braces, or you lived in an area without access to proper dental care. Perhaps you did have braces but stopped wearing your retainer.
Some people didn’t need braces as children, but as they have aged, their teeth have shifted, or they’ve had extractions, leaving gaps between their teeth. But is orthodontic treatment as effective for adults as it is for children and teens? Let’s find out!
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Is It Possible To Straighten Your Teeth As An Adult?
Yes! Your teeth never stop shifting, and the human bite is as intricate as it is fascinating. Just ask anyone who’s had a missing tooth. If a tooth is extracted and not replaced with an implant, other teeth will shift into its place, and the opposing tooth will rise out of its socket to try and touch its mate. This can cause severe bite issues, root exposure, bone loss, and jaw pain.
But while this potential for teeth shifts might cause concerns for some adults, it also means that orthodontics can move your teeth into a perfectly straight smile.
Does Age Really Make A Difference?
Sort of. Yes, it’s easier to move your teeth when you’re younger while your body is still growing. So, it will take slightly longer to move your teeth as an adult, but maybe not as long as you think.
Treatment times for children and teens vary depending on the orthodontic method — think braces vs. Invisalign — but on average, it takes between 12 to 24 months. Adult orthodontics can also take between 12 to 24 months but may take up to 36, depending on the severity of their case. There are, however, some key factors that can make adult orthodontics take longer.
Factors That Can Slow Down Orthodontic Treatment
- Certain Medications — This article from the Journal of Pharmacy and BioAllied Sciences explains how medications like ibuprofen (Advil) and naproxen sodium (Aleve) can prevent the inflammatory response that contributes to tooth movement.
- Tobacco Use — Using tobacco products significantly affects your oral health and can extend your orthodontic treatment. It reduces blood flow to the gums, which makes healing take longer and increases your risk of tooth decay.
- Clenching and Grinding — Also called bruxism, clenching and grinding your teeth can lengthen your course of treatment. Bruxism can rock your teeth in their sockets, loosening them. Orthodontics loosens your teeth to help move them. When you clench or grind while receiving orthodontic treatment, your teeth never have a chance to settle into their new locations. This could lead to bone loss if left untreated.
- Gum Disease — Untreated gum disease can also delay your orthodontic treatment. In fact, most dentists and orthodontists will treat the gum disease before you begin orthodontic treatment. If orthodontics have already loosened your teeth, gum disease worsens the problem by allowing bacteria deep into the spaces between your teeth and gums.
Best Options for Adult Orthodontic Treatment
Once you’ve decided to start adult orthodontic treatment, you have to decide which method is best for you.
Clear aligners are BPA-free, medical-grade plastic trays that fit snugly over your teeth, shifting them a little bit at a time until they’re in the desired locations. While aligner treatment works for about 90% of straightening cases, some tooth movements may not be possible. There are two different types of clear aligner therapy: in-office and at-home.
Traditional “in-office” aligners
Invisalign, ClearCorrect, and other in-office aligners require the in-person oversight of a dentist or orthodontist. Your dentist will take scans and X-rays of your teeth, then collaborate with the aligner company to design your treatment plan. These aligners might incorporate elastics or tiny button attachments that help to induce more complex tooth and jaw shifts, making them capable of treating a wide variety of misalignments.
Throughout your treatment, you’ll visit your dentist every 4-6 weeks so they can monitor your progress, provide new aligners, and make adjustments to your plan if necessary. On average, treatment lasts 12-18 months and costs $3,000–8,000.
At-home clear aligner companies like Byte, AlignerCo, and SmileDirectClub create aligners that look and feel similar to traditional in-office options, yet they don’t require a single office visit. You’ll create molds of your teeth at home — certain brands also offer in-person teeth scans — and a remote team of dentists will use them to develop your treatment plan.
Because they don’t incorporate attachments or hands-on care, these aligners are only suitable for mild and moderate cases of crowding and spacing. Yet they often only take 4-6 months and cost $1,200–2,300.
Learn more in our comparison review of the best clear aligner brands, including Byte, Candid, Invisalign, and more.
For certain severe misalignments, traditional braces are still the only way to get the results necessary for a straight smile and a healthy jaw/joint relationship. They were once only available in metal, but today, you can get less-visible models made from porcelain or plastic. Your orthodontist will affix these brackets to the front surfaces of your teeth with dental cement. Or, if you choose lingual braces, your dentist will cement them behind your teeth.
They’ll then slide archwires through the brackets and hold them in place with small o-rings. These o-rings come in various colors and your dentist will replace them each time you go in for an adjustment, usually every 4-6 weeks.
Regardless of the orthodontic method, dedication to a strict brushing and flossing routine and frequent professional cleanings will help prevent stains and cavities.
Will I Need Retainers?
Yes. All patients who receive orthodontic treatment will need to wear retainers afterward. You will need to wear them every night, typically for the rest of your life, or your teeth could potentially shift back into their original positions. Every case is different, so ask your doctor about the retainers and wear schedule they recommend.
Risks of Adult Orthodontic Treatment
Like any dental treatment or procedure, there are always risks involved. These situations are rare, but you should still be aware of them before you begin treatment.
Tenderness and Discomfort
Braces can cause discomfort after each adjustment, which usually lasts a few days. They can also irritate the insides of your cheeks and lips. Placing orthodontic wax over the brackets or wires can give you some relief until your mouth adjusts.
While patients of clear aligner therapy often report less discomfort than those with traditional braces, you can still expect some tenderness when you put in a new set for the first time.
Soft foods, ice packs, and over-the-counter pain relievers recommended by your doctor are great ways to ease the pain associated with both braces and clear aligner treatment.
Regardless of the orthodontic treatment method, whenever you move tooth roots, there’s a very small chance that the force can damage nerves. If a nerve gets damaged, it may die, requiring a root canal. It’s rare, but still possible.
Demineralization and Tooth Decay
You can remove clear aligners to brush and floss, making oral hygiene much easier than carefully brushing around each bracket and threading floss underneath an archwire.
If you don’t keep your teeth clean during orthodontic treatment, you can risk tooth decay around the brackets, which can cause nerve damage. Sometimes your tooth will start to demineralize, which means the enamel is weakened, but the decay hasn’t eaten through it yet, causing white spots that won’t go away on their own.
Sometimes, braces and clear aligners trigger temporary pain or discomfort in the temporomandibular joint, or TMJ. This is common and gets better as treatment progresses. Symptoms include clicking, popping and trouble chewing, and while they generally aren’t a concern, you should get them checked out by your doctor.
Increased Risk of Relapse
Research has shown that clear aligner treatment may be less stable than braces for some patients. In other words, your teeth are more likely to shift back after treatment with clear aligners than they are with braces.
How Much Will It Cost?
You might be surprised to learn that orthodontics for children cost around the same as orthodontics for adults.
Traditional braces typically cost between $3,000 and $8,000, depending on your bite and the projected treatment time. Specialty braces like self-ligating Damon braces are about the same, running between $3,500 and $8,000. Lingual braces, which are placed behind your teeth, are the most expensive form of braces, costing around $11,000 or more.
Clear aligners come in various styles, and the cost varies just as much. At-home brands don’t require any in-office check-ins, and those usually cost between $1,200 and $2,300. Invisalign requires in-office check-ups every 4-6 weeks and costs between $3,000–8,000.
If orthodontic treatment feels outside of your budget, there are many payment methods that can help make the price more manageable. While more and more dental insurance companies are covering adult orthodontics, many plans cap eligibility at age 19. If you’re considering orthodontics, check with your dental benefits provider or your HR department about plans that cover adults.
Many dental offices offer payment plans and accept FSA and HSA funds. These plans allow you to put money into an account for medical and dental expenses not covered by insurance.
Third-party financing is another great way to make orthodontics more affordable. Companies like CareCredit, LendingClub, and beWell FTL offer low- or no-interest plans, spaced out over a set period of time. However, they often require credit checks, so not everyone qualifies. If you do, you’ll make payments directly to the company without involving the doctor’s office.
Adult orthodontics has become a popular option among adults who missed the chance to have braces as a child or who may not have been diligent about wearing their retainer.
Traditional braces and clear aligners both produce straight teeth and proper jaw alignment, combining beauty and function. While identifying problems early in life may allow faster treatment, it’s never too late to have a gorgeous and functional smile!
Frequently Asked Questions
How much do braces or clear aligners cost?
Depending on the style of braces, treatment can run between $3,000–11,000. Clear aligners cost between $1,200 and $8,000. Remember that treatment can occasionally fall outside that range. It all depends on your needs.
How long does treatment take?
For adults, braces often take around 24 months, although treatment can take as little as 12 months or as long as 36. At-home aligners usually take 4-6 months for aligners worn for 22 hours per day and 8-10 months for nighttime-only plans. Invisalign takes a little longer, typically around 12-18 months.
Are there any risks?
Every dental procedure has risks. In very rare cases, a nerve will die from the force of the root moving in the bone. Jaw pain and discomfort are common and usually go away as treatment progresses. Braces have a higher risk of tooth decay and demineralization if you don’t brush and floss well, while at-home aligners also have a higher risk of relapse.
Will I need retainers?
Yes. You will need to wear retainers every night to prevent your teeth from shifting back into their original positions.
Can I afford adult orthodontics?
Yes! If your insurance plan doesn’t cover adult ortho, there are ways to make it more affordable. In-office financing, FSA and HSA accounts, and third-party financing make treatment accessible at any age.