Clear aligner therapy refers to the orthodontic movement of teeth via plastic molds that fit over the teeth, as opposed to traditional braces comprised of metal brackets and wires. Although clear aligners have gained widespread popularity in the last 20 years, the earliest clear aligner concepts date to the mid-1940s. Since then, tremendous advances have been made in this field, and the treatment options continue to expand every day.
A Brief History of Clear Aligner Therapy
The first tooth aligner concepts were based around rubber and plastic appliances that were used primarily in conjunction with metal braces and not as a complete alternative to them. These devices were capable of achieving minor tooth movement or acting as retainers once braces had achieved the desired tooth alignment. As technological advances in dental materials and computer science were made, the possibilities of clear aligner therapy dramatically expanded. In 1997, Invisalign was begun and has since become nearly synonymous with clear aligner therapy. This is because, for many years, Invisalign was the only clear aligner option due to their many patents on the technology. In recent years, many of these patents have expired, allowing other companies to come online and offer patients new options.
How Exactly Do Clear Aligners Work?
Clear aligners work essentially the same way braces do: by slowly moving teeth into the desired form. The difference, of course, lies in the appliance that exerts the necessary forces on teeth that cause them to move. Clear aligners are transparent, plastic-like mouthpieces that fit over a patient’s teeth. Relatively slim and comfortable, clear aligners are virtually undetectable, making their cosmetic value extremely high. The entire span of treatment consists of wearing several different aligners, each causing different tooth movements as needed. Each aligner is designed to not only fit the most recent changes made to the teeth but to also push certain teeth in a given direction.
Clear aligner therapy was radically changed with the advent of computer-aided design. Nowadays, aligner companies use digital impressions of a patient’s teeth to design the entire series of aligners, eliminating the need for multiple old-fashioned impressions each step of the way.
Depending on the case, certain ancillary treatments may be needed. These include what are known as “engagers,” small blebs of tooth-colored material bonded to the teeth that allow the aligner to gain more leverage on the tooth. Some crowded teeth may also require “interproximal reduction,” a very minor reduction of tooth surface in between teeth that allows them to move into a straighter position.
Invisalign: The One That Started it All
Invisalign was the brainchild of two Stanford University students with essentially no dental background. But since 1997, the company has been the first and most recognizable name in clear aligner therapy. Invisalign was unique in their approach to marketing, in that they were arguably the first major dental company to market directly to consumers, rather than dentists themselves. This caused demand among patients and dentists followed suit by becoming certified Invisalign providers. It is worth noting that dentists who offer Invisalign must go through a series of training and educational modules in order to become certified.
Clear Correct: A Newer Name in Clear Aligners
Clear Correct, a Texas-based company, is a new name in the clear aligner market and has earned a good reputation among many dentists for delivering excellent results. From a patient’s perspective, the experience with Clear Correct vs. Invisalign is more or less the same—it is simply a matter of your dentist’s preference as to which system is used.
At Home Systems: The Future of Clear Aligners?
As clear aligner therapy has become more popular, effective, and accessible to patients, it hasn’t taken long for new ideas to emerge on how to improve and alter the treatment concept even further. The most interesting ideas now center on the concept of “at home” clear aligner therapy. The process is simple: a company sends you a kit with materials and instructions needed to make impressions (or “molds”) of your own teeth, which are then sent back to the company. Technicians use these molds to make models of your teeth and then employ advanced computer design systems to create a week-by-week treatment plan for achieving the desired orthodontic result.
At this point, it is important to make one thing clear: there are many at-home clear aligner companies out there. If you choose to use one, make sure that they have licensed orthodontists on staff who review each treatment plan. As simple as clear aligner therapy is, it still requires the assessment and diagnosis of an orthodontist to ensure the treatment is carried out safely and effectively.
Companies like Smile Direct Club not only make the process easier and more affordable; an orthodontist reviews each of their treatment plans. Furthermore, they make it possible to send a 3D scan of your teeth which can be obtained at one of their locations, known as “Smile Shops.” These Smile Shops are located across the U.S. and new locations are continually being opened.
A Few Things to Know About Clear Aligner Therapy
As with many elective dental procedures, not all patients are perfect candidates for clear aligners. Patients with severely crowded or impacted teeth, for example, will benefit far more from traditional metal braces. Patients with extensive dental needs such as untreated cavities or periodontal disease are also not ideal candidates.
Wearing clear aligners requires a significant amount of patient motivation and compliance since they are typically intended to be worn 22 hours a day. In other words, if you aren’t eating or brushing your teeth, you need to be wearing the aligners. For patients who are motivated to achieve a better smile without wearing braces, though, this is a relatively small sacrifice to make.
Clear aligner therapy has been a revolutionary development in the world of dentistry. With each passing year, the possibilities for achieving orthodontic treatment without metal brackets and wires seem to grow even more. If you are interested in straightening your teeth but don’t want to sacrifice aesthetics in the process, talk to your dentist about the possibility of utilizing clear aligners to get the smile you’ve always dreamed of.