In our field, orthodontists focus on the tangible aspects of our patients’ smiles. Our specialty concerns straightening misaligned teeth and correcting malocclusions (incorrect bites). We look at the physical aspects of these problems and the physical solutions to them. We are not psychologists.
At the same time, we are aware of the psychological impact of what we do for our patients. Even though orthodontics improves oral health, it also improves mental health and well-being in a number of ways:
We’ve begun working with patients with crooked teeth who are clearly shy about how they look. They tell us they try not to show their teeth when they smile for photos, and sometimes they cover their mouths with their hands when they talk. It’s so wonderful when they’re done with treatment to see how their attitude has improved. But these benefits are not just anecdotal. According to studies, young people after orthodontic treatment have shown higher emotional and social well-being than their peers who never had treatment.
Like it or not, we live in an image-conscious society (and you can argue that every society in human history has been image conscious in its own way). Orthodontics make people’s smiles more attractive, and it’s human nature to respond positively to attractiveness. So braces can lead to increase social capital. Beyond that, braces can help in other ways. For example, crooked teeth can trap food in hard-to-reach places and result in bad breath, so straight teeth can eliminate other social negatives as well.
If you have or once had a misaligned bite, you know that malocclusions can make the everyday functioning of your mouth annoying. When your teeth don’t meet up as they should, it can be hard to bite into food, and you might have to compensate by biting with other parts of your mouth. Or your misaligned teeth may cause a speech impediment. It’s also harder and more time consuming to clean crooked teeth as opposed to straight ones.
The benefit of improved concentration is primarily for those patients whose dental problems are not just annoying but are in fact painful. Jutting teeth can sometimes stick into the insides of cheeks or scrape against the tongue, and the pain can be even worse when the problems result in ongoing blisters or bleeding. Chronic pain can be very distracting. Orthodontic treatment takes care of it.
When you’re a baby or toddler, you live in the now and have little awareness of the benefits of delayed gratification. This awareness of course improves as people get older, but teenagers’ decisions still tend to be short sighted, according to child development experts. The process of getting orthodontic treatment and the very tangible rewards at the end help exhibit firsthand the benefits of delayed gratification.
So while orthodontists may not have expertise in psychology or counseling, they still can have quite a bit of influence on their patients’ emotional happiness.