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Archaeologists have found evidence that metal bands and catgut were used thousands of years ago by people trying different methods to straighten teeth. According to the American Association of Orthodontists (AAO), Hippocrates wrote about the teeth straightening process around 400 B.C. However, it was not until the 1800s that orthodontia began emerging as a separate area in the science of dentistry. In 1880, Norman W. Kingsley published his Treatise on Oral Deformities; for this work he became known as the "Father of Orthodontics." Orthodontia was officially recognized as the first specialty of dentistry with the founding of the AAO in 1900.

In the early days of modern orthodontia, braces were always made of metal, such as gold and later stainless steel, and fitting braces to a patient was a time-consuming process. In the 1960s, it may have taken nearly a whole day for an orthodontist to put braces on a person's teeth. Technology has brought about major changes in the field. By the late 20th century, orthodontists were using highly effective materials, such as NASA-developed heat-activated nickel-titanium wires that are very lightweight and flexible. Braces now can be white, clear, or colored. In certain cases, orthodontists sometimes even can place "invisible braces"—those that are attached to the tongue side of the teeth. The process of putting braces on teeth does not take nearly as long now, and patients need fewer follow-up visits for adjusting their braces.

Another change in the field has resulted from the AAO's recommendation that children first be evaluated by an orthodontist by age seven. At that age, even children who have teeth that appear straight may have the beginnings of a jaw malformation that is not detectable by an untrained eye. A malformation can become a serious problem after a child becomes a teenager. Parents often bring their children to an orthodontist at the suggestion of their child's general dentist, who may suspect a dental or facial development that should be evaluated and monitored.

In addition to seeing younger patients, orthodontists are now finding that their clientele includes older, grown patients. In 2002, movie star Tom Cruise, for example, became one of the growing number of adults to put on braces. Braces made from high-tech wires, ceramics, and even hard, plastic trays give adults the option of wearing something subtle, versatile, and effective. The field of orthodontia should continue to grow as new technologies develop, as the corrective process becomes less painful, and as people of all ages seek the services of orthodontists.

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