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The Basics of Orthodontic Terminology

It’s true that when you’re sitting in the orthodontist’s chair, you can be very difficult to understand. Yet what happens if you can’t understand your orthodontist? There are many terms used in this industry which you may not have heard before, and this article will outline some of the more commonly used terms in orthodontic care.

smiling girl with braces

Getting Braces

When they recommend braces, your orthodontist is talking about a very efficient way to correct problems such as crooked or protruding teeth, or biting and chewing issues. Anyone who is about to get braces will likely have heard at least one of the following terms.

  • Appliance – In orthodontics, an appliance refers to any device that an orthodontist uses to move or hold the teeth, or change the jaw’s position. Appliances can correct a wide range of orthodontic issues without the need for surgery.
  • Headgear – A type of appliance, headgear helps teeth to grow or move into their new positions. It is worn outside of the mouth.
  • Ligature – A very thin wire or rubber band that holds each bracket’s wire in a set of braces.
  • Periodontium – Your orthodontist will likely refer to this when talking to you about cleaning your braces. It is all of the tissue which surrounds the teeth—otherwise known as your gums.

Common Orthodontic Issues and Solutions

If you have an uneven bite, some teeth that are sticking out, your teeth seem to be pushing up against one another, or you have another issue, you’ve definitely heard these terms.

  • Malocclusion – This term is used when describing teeth having an improper fit. The word is Latin for “bad bite.” You’ll fall into one of three classes of malocclusion. Class I is when your molars line up okay, but there’s trouble with how your teeth line up at the front of your mouth.

Class II malocclusions are those where your lower jaw or teeth are back farther than your upper teeth and jaw. It can also be a Class II when your upper front teeth are protruding. Last, but not least, a Class III malocclusion is the diagnosis when your lower teeth or jaw protrudes ahead of your upper jaw and teeth.

  • Bruxism – If your orthodontist has prescribed a retainer for you, it may be because you have adopted the habit of bruxism or the grinding of your teeth when you’re asleep. The retainer will prevent your teeth from wearing down at an abnormally fast rate, as well as help to reduce pain in your jaws, face, or neck.
  • Impression – In society, an impression is the effect you have on a person’s conscience, feelings, or intellect, but, in orthodontics, an impression is the first step to creating a mold of your teeth. To create this impression, you’ll need to bite down into a container holding a soft material. Once removed, the material hardens, and voila! The cast of your teeth is complete.
  • Aligner – An aligner is a type of removable retainer that can straighten your teeth. Aligners can be used to correct minor orthodontic issues, and they may also be recommended for wearing before you begin wearing a retainer.
  • Retainer – If you’ve recently had your braces removed or you grind your teeth, retainers are a common appliance. They can help keep teeth in their new position after braces removal, prevent damage to your teeth from grinding, and straighten teeth that are mildly crooked.
  • Impacted – When your orthodontist says you have one or more impacted teeth, they are referring to those that are unable to move to a new position. This can be due to them being too close to your other teeth (called “crowding”) or because of the way the bone is positioned. If the teeth are crowded, serial extraction may be necessary.


In some cases, surgery can be required in order to correct a particular alignment issue that is considered to be serious.

dentist treatment a patients teeth

  • Orthognathic Surgery – This surgery may be recommended if you have problems with the jaw that prevent you from speaking, chewing, or biting properly. It corrects the jaw and occurs between pre- and post-surgical orthodontic treatment.
  • Frenectomy – The tissue that joins the lip to the tongue or the lip to the upper jaw is called the frenum. A frenectomy involves either surgically removing the frenum or repositioning it for the purpose of better alignment.
  • Fiberotomy – If your orthodontist wishes to reduce the risk of your teeth moving back to their original spots after your braces are removed, they’ll discuss performing a fiberotomy with you. During this procedure, your orthodontist will remove some of the gum tissue from around your teeth.
  • Serial Extraction – This is the removal of teeth in a specific manner over a period of time. A patient’s baby or primary teeth can be removed to allow for the proper eruption (growth) of adult teeth. In adults, a serial extraction may be needed in order to make room between teeth due to crowding, which can help move the teeth later on if braces or another appliance is suggested.

Bacteria, Infections, and Other Yucky Stuff

In addition to putting your braces on and doing surgeries, your orthodontist can also diagnose a wide range of diseases that can occur in the mouth, as well as their causes. The best thing about seeing your orthodontist early is that all of these can be diagnosed and treated earlier, drastically reducing the risk of developing more serious diseases later on.

  • Plaque – Plaque is the sticky film that develops on your teeth when saliva, bacteria, and particles of food combine and settle on the surface. When plaque comes into contact with sugar, it forms an acid, and, when not removed, this acid can eat away at teeth, causing cavities. It can also eat away at the gums, causing gum disease. The best treatment? Brushing and flossing.
  • Gingivitis – Gingivitis is the beginning of gum disease. However, it can progress to more severe gum disease if not dealt with early on. This condition is typically the result of not taking proper care of your teeth. When you don’t floss or brush, acidic plaque builds up. The longer it sits on your gums, the more irritated they become. Next thing you know, you’re seeing blood whenever you try to brush or floss your teeth.

The good news is that gingivitis can be completely reversed. All you need is immediate treatment from your orthodontist, and to stick to a proper dental cleaning routine.

  • Decalcification – These white spots on the teeth are precursors to future cavities. If you drink lots of soda but don’t brush your teeth properly, your orthodontist may use this term when examining your teeth.
  • Gum Disease – When gingivitis goes untreated, the gums become infected even further, causing gum disease, also known as periodontitis. With time, this chronic infection will cause you to lose your teeth. The worst thing is that, most of the time, you won’t even know you have gum disease because you won’t feel pain.

The solution to these problems? Get orthodontic treatment, and adopt a regimen that ensures regular plaque removal with brushing after meals and before you go to bed. You’ll also want to floss every day at least once.

Confused Yet?

labbe family orthodontics team

If all of these terms are leaving you overwhelmed and confused, you’re not alone. There is definitely a lot to learn! However, the good news is that you can get all of the answers you need. Just make an appointment with Labbe Family Orthodontics for a complimentary orthodontic consultation.

Looking for an “orthodontist near me”? Each one of our offices in Annapolis, Bowie, Crofton/Gambrills, and Greenbelt is lucky to have a great team of orthodontic specialists who are ready to explain everything and give you the information you need to make important decisions about your oral health. At Labbe, we always treat you like family. Schedule your consultation now and discover why life is better with a smile: 443-603-3448.

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