Integrative Dentistry and Orthodontics Heal Chronic Childhood Health Problems

Originally published in MegaZEN Volume 3

When I tell people I practice integrative pediatric dentistry and orthodontics, they usually assume that means I use naturally-based fillers and sealants. While that is true, I also use things like ozone instead of harsh antiseptics and antibiotics. My digital x-ray machines use the absolute minimal amount of radiation, and laser technology allows me to avoid anesthesia in most cases. Yes, it’s wonderful to be able to offer dental services free of the caustic chemicals and toxins usually involved with oral care, but what makes holistic dentistry and orthodontics different from conventional treatment is much more than the physical tools of the trade.

Holistic dental care is evolving rapidly and has moved far beyond the drill-and-fill approach of standard treatment. Because every part of the body is interconnected, what we often see as isolated problems are really symptoms of a larger condition that needs attention. Through the work of people like Dr. Weston A. Price, we know that the state of someone’s dental health provides important clues to their overall health. Utilizing this scientific approach, integrative dentistry and orthodontics broadens the focus beyond filling cavities and straightening teeth. Through integrative orthodontics, a wide range of medical conditions that children suffer through but are written off as a normal part of childhood can be addressed. Most physicians are completely unaware that things like ADHD, poor eyesight, sleep disturbances, breathing difficulties, sinus issues and even hearing problems are often exacerbated or caused by misalignments and malformations in the mouth, jaw, head and neck region. By identifying the clues we find in these areas of the body, we can do far more than just treat the symptom by giving children a prettier smile; we can give them a healthier body and better quality of life.

More Than Appearances

I believe and research continues to show that some of the malformations in the heads, necks and jaws of children come from nutritional deficiencies in the mother’s diet during gestation and in their own diet after birth. For dramatic examples of this fact, I highly recommend reading Dr. Price’s landmark book, Nutrition and Physical Degeneration. It provides hundreds of photos of people from around the world and what happens to their oral and physical health after abandoning their native diets for modern food products. Robust parents living in native communities with no access to dental services and yet, no cavities, began having children with deformed dental arches, crowded and crooked teeth, rampant tooth decay and protruded or receded jaws that altered their native facial structure.

“Integrative orthodontics examines dental structure and function within the context of the whole face and body rather than making straightening teeth the sole focus.”

While these problems might seem just cosmetic in nature, their impact goes much deeper. The upper jaw or maxilla branches out on both sides of the face to form much of the cheekbones and extends inside the skull to support the underside of the eye sockets. A malformed maxilla often fails to properly support the shape of the eyeballs leading to sometimes near-sightedness and astigmatism. It’s also the support structure that keeps nasal airways open. Any deformities can lead to an asymmetrical nose, deviated septum, snoring and sleep apnea, which is a contributing factor in children with ADHD. It’s most likely that a significant portion of America’s epidemic of sleep disorders is due to undiagnosed underdeveloped maxillae, mandible, or both. Sunken or flat cheeks, a nose that shifts to one side and droopy lower eyelids that expose the underside white of the eye are all signs of a malformation of the maxilla.

Airway Access Issues

An underdeveloped lower jaw or mandible always affects a child’s ability to breathe by compromising the airway and forcing the tongue too far back in the mouth. To compensate for this misalignment, the child often forces the head too far forward. While this posture opens the airway a bit more, it throws the spine along with the rest of the body out of alignment. The result can be any combination of symptoms linked to temporomandibular joint disorder (TMD) such as jaw pain, headaches, teeth grinding, neck and shoulder tension, back pain and fatigue. This head-forward position also triggers the sympathetic nervous system and the body’s fight-or-flight stress response. This causes the body to unnecessarily secrete the stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol that increase weight gain and suppress the immune system.

Something to Smile About: Integrative Dentistry and Orthodontics Heal Chronic Childhood Health Problems

Because both jaws meet at the sides of the skull near the ears, misalignments and malformations have also been known to affect hearing, as well as the frequency of ear issues earlier in life. If your child is experiencing any of these issues, it’s very important to recognize that they are not isolated problems but symptoms of a larger condition. Most of the time, these problems can be completely eradicated by consulting with an integrative orthodontist.

Avoiding Hardware Hazards

Classic signs of an under-formed mandible or narrow dental arch are cooked or crowded teeth, an overbite, underbite, crossbite, or an irregular bite where teeth don’t come together properly. Each of these conditions is known as a malocclusion. In the vast majority of cases, the common treatment for the misalignment is to fit the child with braces, or at best treat it with a very forceful expander. The focus is solely cosmetic with the goal of making the teeth straight. Unfortunately, this does nothing to expand the palate permanently, correct the shape of the arch or realign the jaw and resolve any of the medical problems this malformation is causing. In fact, braces only end up contorting the child’s jaw into a position that’s even more unnatural for them, allowing the underlying chronic medical conditions to continue while applying force against the direction of their natural facial development as they grow.

Integrative orthodontics examines dental structure and function within the context of the whole face and body rather than making straightening teeth the sole focus. Everyone wants their child to have beautiful straight teeth, but any malocclusion is the sign of a deeper structural problem that’s most likely causing several other chronic health conditions. In this respect, the difference between traditional and integrative orthodontics is like buying a house and making a bunch of cosmetic changes to flip it over for a fast resale and a real renovation that expands and strengthens the structural integrity of the home.

While undiagnosed health problems related to malocclusions continue after braces or get exacerbated, the other downside is that unless a retainer continues to be worn, the teeth begin to revert back to their crowded position. This happens because nothing has been done to really expand the arch and palate or cranium, so they can accommodate all the child’s teeth. Instead, the teeth have been force-fitted or tipped into a framework that’s still too small. The shape of a child’s face and profile can also be negatively affected from unnecessary extractions and pulling the upper and lower jaw back, resulting in a flat appearance or receded chin.

Letting the Body Lead

A holistic approach to orthodontics uses tools that work with the body and allow craniofacial structure and dental formation to develop as they normally would have according to the child’s genetic pattern before the disturbance. Integrative oral appliances do this by gently expanding the palate and jaw, encouraging new bone growth and creating room for the teeth to naturally move into a healthy and beautiful position.

“Every child’s smile is precious, but so is their health.”

These expanding retainers are easily installed and use very light biological dynamics. This provides for a more convenient and comfortable experience, unlike traditional braces that often exert too much pressure on a child’s cranial bones and can affect concentration and mental function. As the palate and jaw are allowed to follow their own genetic blueprint through gentle expansion, teeth naturally straighten, the bite realigns, and the child’s natural facial structure emerges. It’s quite common to see children today who suffer from oral malformation because the narrow palate and jaw development forces their faces to develop in a predominantly vertical direction. Natural palate and jaw expansion allow the child’s face to achieve horizontal growth as well, leading to a beautifully balanced smile. At the same time, the airway obstruction, sleep difficulties, hearing issues and other problems the child has been experiencing disappear.

When to Start

Having your child examined as early as birth by an integrative dentist and orthodontist is recommended. The birthing process as well as where the child was sitting in utero has significant effects on the jaw. In addition, the small bands of connecting tissue beneath the tongue and upper lip, called frenulum, can not only have an effect on breastfeeding but also create narrowing of the palate, speech issues, congestion and acid reflux. This problem is being missed by many of our pediatricians and sometimes, even lactation consultants. Although the baby has no teeth yet, there are many other structural issues that can be examined in the mouth. Any signs of difficulty breathing, nursing, eating or sleeping should be shared with your pediatric dentist and orthodontist as well as your regular pediatrician, especially pediatricians with osteopathic training. These problems are not mutually exclusive to the body or mouth. Palate and arch expansion can be performed at any point during childhood, but earlier is always better because we can take advantage of the child’s rapid growth phase and prevent him or her from acquiring negative ways of compensating for the malformation that lead to additional problems later in life.

While my practice treats only children, there’s good news for adults, too. While it was once thought that the palate and arch structure could only be corrected during childhood; it appears that is no longer true. Corrections of the palate and arch have been demonstrated in adults into their 70’s. Keep in mind that the later in life you seek to correct dental misalignments and malformations the longer and more involved the treatment process may be. Reversing the effects of negatively compensating with the body for decades takes time, but will be well worth it in the benefit it provides to your overall health.

Every child’s smile is precious, but so is their health. Consider having your child examined by an orthodontist or a pediatric dentist who is trained to look at the whole body rather than just the teeth, especially if he or she is experiencing any of the problems I discussed here. In the end, you and your child just might have a whole lot more to smile about.