The Basics Of Orthodontic Terminology

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Braces are a type of appliance that can be used to correct many orthodontic problems, but if you or a family member will soon be visiting an orthodontist for braces, they’ll use terms you’ve probably never heard before. We’ve put together this guide to common orthodontic terms to help you prepare for your upcoming visit.

Common Terms For Orthodontic Problems

Applying braces is one of many treatments for an open bite, and not all patients will benefit from the same treatments. Preventing bad oral habits in children can help to lessen the severity of an open bite. When discussing braces, your orthodontist will very likely use some terms that are common to them but not so common to you. These are some of the terms they may use when referring to orthodontic problems that braces may be able to correct:

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.

Crossbite – A crossbite is a type of malocclusion, which is just a fancy name for a bite problem. Crossbites are typically diagnosed when the top and bottom teeth aren’t in the correct position when biting down. This particular issue can have a number of causes, including:

  • Position of the jaw
  • Position of the teeth
  • A combination of incorrect tooth and jaw position
  • Narrow upper jaw

In children and adolescents where the crossbite is caused by a narrow upper jaw, braces can be used in combination with other appliances. In teens and adults, a crossbite can be treated with retainers or Invisalign clear aligners.

Deep Bite – Deep bite is another malocclusion or bite problem. Also called overbite or closed bite, this issue is characterized by upper front teeth that noticeably overlap the front teeth on the bottom. A very common cause of deep bite is the lower jaw being shorter than the upper. Other causes are:

  • A missing lower tooth
  • Strong biting muscles

To correct this condition, an orthodontist may use clear aligners or traditional braces for kids, in addition to other treatments, including elongating side and back teeth to open the bite.

Diastema – A diastema is the industry term for gaps between the teeth. Diastemas can range from barely noticeable to severe, but typically they aren’t harmful. This particular condition has several causes that may or may not be able to be corrected with braces alone, such as:

  • Incorrect swallowing reflex
  • Periodontal disease
  • Mismatched size of teeth and jawbone

With causes like periodontal disease, this will need to be treated before further steps to correct the diastema can be taken.

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.

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.

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.

Open Bite – An open bite is the diagnosis when the upper and lower teeth are not able to make contact when the mouth is closed. Typically, this condition is hereditary, but it can also occur when the size of the jawbone and teeth, or the upper and lower jaws, differ. In addition, an open bite can be caused by:

  • Facial trauma
  • Extra, impacted, misshapen, or missing teeth
  • Habits like thumb-sucking or thrusting the tongue against the teeth

Common Terms Associated With 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. In addition to all the industry terms for orthodontic issues, you will likely hear many terms used to describe the different parts of braces or braces products. These are a few:

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.

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.

Archwire – Archwires are used in traditional braces and refer to the metal wires that you can see between the brackets on each tooth. The job of the archwire is to guide an individual tooth into its new position. As treatment with braces progresses, you will visit your orthodontist regularly to have your archwires tightened so that your teeth can be encouraged to move farther along their “tracks” to where they’re supposed to be.

Attachments and Buttons – This term is used exclusively for Invisalign clear aligners. Attachments help the aligners to grip your teeth and help move them into position. They are the same color as your teeth and are bonded to the teeth with dental cement. In cases where your orthodontist is using rubber bands along with clear aligners, tooth-colored or metal buttons may be used to anchor or attach the bands.

Bands – Bands refer to the rubber bands that are often used with traditional metal braces. Also called ligatures or elastic bands,  they are available in many colors, appear as a small rubber ring, and are used to keep archwires in place.

Bonded Retainer – A bonded retainer is a type of permanent retainer; a metal wire is glued along the inside of the retainer. The bonded retainer is used to anchor teeth in their new positions.

Bonding – Where traditional braces are being installed, brackets must be attached to each tooth so that archwires and bands can be placed between them. Bonding refers to the processes of using orthodontic glue to bond the bracket to the tooth.

Bracket – An orthodontic attachment made of metal, ceramic or plastic that holds the archwire against each tooth. The archwire fits into a slot in the bracket. Brackets may be attached directly to each tooth or to a band.

C Chain – C chains are used in metal braces to close the gaps between teeth. Also called power chains, they are a continuous chain of elastic that is wrapped around the brackets.

Ceramic Brackets – Crystalline, alumina, tooth-shade or clear synthetic sapphire brackets that are aesthetically more attractive than conventional metal attachments.

Coil Spring – The coil spring fits between brackets and over the archwire.

Debanding – The removal of cemented orthodontic bands.

Elastics – A tiny rubber ring that ties the archwire into the bracket. Found in numerous colors for better appearance.

Fixed Retainer – A permanent retainer that is bonded to the back side of the front teeth to keep the teeth from shifting from their new position.

Habit Appliance – An appliance designed to deter thumb or finger sucking habits.

Headgear – A type of appliance, headgear helps teeth to grow or move into their new positions. It is worn outside of the mouth.

Herbst Appliance – Fixed or removable appliance designed commonly for overbite problems.

Invisalign – Invisalign is a series of clear aligner trays that are used to move teeth into their new positions. Each set of trays is worn for two weeks and then exchanged for the next set, which moves the teeth closer together.

Ligature – A very thin wire or rubber band that holds each bracket’s wire in a set of braces.

Lingual Appliances – Orthodontic appliances fixed to the interior (tongue) side of teeth.

Mara Appliance – A growth appliance that helps correct overbites by positioning the patient’s lower jaw forward.

Mouthguard – A mouthpiece that is tailored to provide protection to the braces and teeth while the patient is playing a sport.

Nightguard – A nightguard is an appliance for those who clench or grind their teeth to wear during sleep to protect teeth from further wear and damage.

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.

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.

Separator (Spacer) – Small elastics that fit snugly between certain teeth to move them slightly so bands can be placed around them later.

Wax – Wax is used to prevent and relieve irritation of the cheeks and lips when wearing braces. It is applied directly to the archwires and brackets.

Terms Used For Anatomical And Surgical Purposes

Sometimes, terms for anatomy and surgery may be used by your orthodontist to further explain your orthodontic issue and correction options.

Anterior and Posterior – The anterior is the area located near the front of the mouth. It typically refers to canine and incisor teeth. The posterior area is located near the back of the mouth and, typically, refers to molars or premolars.

Interceptive Treatment – Interceptive treatment, also known as early treatment, is limited orthodontic treatment usually performed between the ages of 6 and 10. This phase of treatment makes future orthodontic treatment faster and less invasive.

Mandible and Maxilla – The mandible is the scientific name for the lower jaw, and the maxilla refers to the upper jaw.

Palate – The palate is the roof of the mouth. This area consists of hard and soft tissues, and it separates the oral cavity from the nasal cavities.

Palatal Expander – Attached to the upper molars through bonding or by cemented bands, the palatal expander is used to create a wider space in the upper jaw.

Wisdom Teeth – Also called the third molars, the wisdom teeth are the farthest back in the mouth. There are two wisdom teeth at the top and two at the bottom of the mouth, and they are the last adult teeth to come in.


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

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?

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.

Contact Labbe Family Orthodontics For More Information

There you have it; some of the most common terms used in orthodontic treatment. Don’t worry, though, as you don’t have to memorize anything. If you still have questions about braces for adults or kids when you see your orthodontist, they’ll be glad to answer any questions you may have.

When it comes to getting braces, the sooner an issue is corrected, the better; this will prevent existing problems from getting worse and prevent new problems from occurring. Choosing the right orthodontist is absolutely essential to get the treatment you need.

Do you live in the Maryland area, don’t have an orthodontist, but want to know more about orthodontic treatment for yourself or a family member? With four locations in AnnapolisBowieCrofton/Gambrills, and GreenbeltLabbe Family Orthodontics and their experienced specialists are in your neighborhood.

We provide you with the information you need to make an informed decision about braces and other treatments that will benefit your oral health. At Labbe, we always treat you like family. Life is better with a smile! Call us and schedule your complimentary consultation today: (410) 267-7300.