In the United States, there are a lot of people and procedures that we take for granted, because we can’t possibly imagine a time, or a life, where we don’t have access to all of these people with the best and brightest employees and with the latest and greatest technologies. However, just because we’ve been blessed and lucky enough to always have access to all these things and all these advances, doesn’t mean that it’s always been the case.
As far as orthodontistry goes, it’s a relatively old branch of dentistry. Most people know them as the people who give you braces and talking about the alignment of your teeth (or, rather, the malocclusions you may be experiencing. Malocclusion is basically the ten-dollar way of saying ‘your teeth are crooked’, so now you know in case you ever wind up on Jeopardy), and for little else.
This is a fairly accurate assessment. The main job of an orthodontist practicing board-certified orthodontistry is to work on the malocclusions that occur, naturally or otherwise, in the mouth. For the most part, that means diagnosing the cause, and then treating it with things like standard metal braces. In extreme cases, this may mean that they will serve to make referrals to places that will provide the patient with dental surgery in order to remove a tooth in order to prevent future overcrowding and misalignment issues, but for the most part, this means that they’re going to be poking around your teeth, taking x-rays and bite impressions, and using computer modeling software in order to determine the best way to fix the ill-aligned teeth in your mouth. This wasn’t always the case, however, as these modern tools are a recent invention; even braces, which most people think is an old idea, are fairly modern, having come around in the last fifty years, although they’ve been explosive in their popularity.
It’s extremely hard to pinpoint when, exactly, the idea to manipulate the teeth came into currency. It’s obvious to anyone with an understanding of basic sociology that it likely came after we’d left, as a species, the ‘hunter gatherer’ phase of evolution, and likely after the ‘agriculture’ phase was left as well, because under those two lifestyles, there simply was no extra time to be had for additional pursuits that weren’t dedicated entirely to ensuring you had food to eat so you could stay alive. However, the first recorded evidence of discussion of the ideas of orthodontistry (or what we would later call orthodontistry, anyway), come from the age of the great philosophers, people like Aristotle, who we still quote today when we’re trying to sound wise. In his time, there were recordings of people talking about the idea of manipulating the alignment of the teeth in order to improve the smile, and of the benefits and risks of such. However, no evidence has emerged that they ever attempted to do more than talk about these things.
A few decades later you could find the first evidence of attempts to actually put those ideas into practice, even in a crude form with questionable effectiveness; not in Europe, but in Egypt, back when it was one of the great bastions of scientific discovery (at the same time they were worshiping the sun. Crazy contradictions, right?). There’s been evidence found in the mouths of the deceased and mummified of an attempt to fix the misaligned teeth, as well as preserving the teeth as the body decomposed around them. Most of these dental appliances were crudely made, using archaic mixtures (archaic, anyway, when compared with today’s discreet cosmetic braces for adults, for example) of gold and other metals along with a substance called catgut (yes, it’s what sounds like, be glad you didn’t need braces in the days of the Pharaohs), and there’s not much likelihood they did a great job realigning the teeth, but they probably kept them from moving any further out of alignment, and they likely did a fantastic job of preserving the overall shape of the mouth while the body was decomposing. It’s been theorized that this was the actual reason for the implementation of such orthodontic appliances, the need to keep the mouth and teeth in one piece prior to arrival in the afterlife.
From these origins, the idea of modern orthodontistry came, leading to the treatments we enjoy today. From that original Egyptian headgear came headgear, followed by braces, followed by Invisalign, and the march toward better adult orthodontics technology continues, unabated. So, next time you think of misaligned teeth and need to know where to turn, turn to the people who’ve been working on the idea for two and a half millenia.