The general aim of orthodontic treatments is to straighten the teeth over time. But all too often the foundations of the teeth are ignored in this quest for a straighter smile.
The reality is, our teeth are just along for the ride; their ultimate position is determined by the development of the jaw. If the jaw has not developed to its full genetic potential, then there will never be enough room for all of the teeth.
Why don’t our jaws develop properly?
Most of us just assume our genetics will simply take over, and ensure we turn out just how we are supposed to. However, in actual fact, the way we develop into our adult form is founded in something known as epigenetics, which is influenced both by our genetic template, and the environment within which we grow up. If environmental changes pass on a different signal to our genes, the end result of our development can be quite different from what was in the original template.
It’s not water or food which is the most important requirement of the human body; in fact, we can live for days without these. However, shut off our air supply, and we are dead in a matter of minutes. That’s why the human body comes equipped with two airways; the nose and the mouth. Our nose is our primary and physiological source of air, while the mouth is our emergency backup; if you cannot breathe through your nose, your body will automatically switch to breathing through your mouth. However, if you either cannot ever, or just don’t breathe through your nose, then your body switches to emergency mode permanently. This results in changes, which sees our epigenetics take over, and kick-starts the signal for our jaw development to change.
The importance of breathing
Nasal breathing plays an essential role in the development of the jaw. Built-in ‘sensors’ within our noses sense the vacuum pressure of the air which we breath in through the nose, signalling our upper jaw to develop in its proper form; broad and forward. Through this, our palate will develop to be both wide and shallow, setting the foundation for great facial harmony, a balanced position for the head, and proper alignment of the neck. This results in optimal development with normal and pleasing proportions.
However, if mouth breathing is the ‘normal’ setting, the upper jaw will instead develop quite narrowly, and will begin to project downwards vertically. This often results in a narrowly formed jaw which seems too small for all the teeth, and a ‘gummy’ smile.
While the upper jaw takes its developmental queues from the nasal passage, the lower jaw takes its from the upper jaw. Simple logic will tell you that if the upper jaw develops too narrowly, then so too will the lower jaw. The problems this sets off in the lower jaw goes far beyond crowded teeth though, and can result in some very serious health problems later in life. As the temporomandibular joint (TMJ) is compressed, the airway in the throat becomes compromised. Later in life this can develop into headaches, TMJ problems, neck pain, and particularly seriously, obstructive sleep apnoea. Conversely, sleep apnoea increases your risk of a heart attack or stroke by more than 5 times.
Addressing epigenetic issues
The good news in all of this is that now you are aware of it, it is in fact possible to do something about it. Whether you’re concerned about the development of your child, or if you suspect you yourself could have a problem, it’s possible to address these issues in both children and adults.