The way your teeth align and meet together is known as occlusion. In an ideal world, the teeth match up perfectly, with the upper teeth resting just slightly above the lower teeth when your jaw is closed and the top surfaces of the molars lining up. But the teeth don't always match up the way they should, leading to a condition known as malocclusion. An open bite is one example of malocclusion or misaligned teeth.
What It Looks Like
When a person has an opening in the bite, the upper and lower front teeth do not come together when the mouth is closed. The result is a gap or opening between the rows of teeth when a person closes the jaw. An open bite not only affects the appearance of a person's smile. It can also cause difficulty with speaking, leading to a lisp or another type of speech impediment.
What Causes It
Generally, three factors contribute to a misalignment of the teeth and an opening between the top and bottom rows of the front teeth. In some instances, the opening can be caused by a problem with the jawbone. Some children also develop an opening in their bite when they have a mix of baby and permanent teeth. The teeth won't quite match up until a child has lost all of his or her baby teeth and gotten all their permanent teeth.
Sometimes, a person's habits can be behind a bite problem. A habit known as tongue thrusting often contributes to an open bite, for example. Tongue thrusting happens when you push the tongue through the teeth during swallowing or while speaking. It's fairly common during early childhood, the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association points out, and most children outgrow it. Kids who don't outgrow the habit may develop problems with their bite and their speech.
Other habits that can cause an opening in the bite include thumb sucking and chewing on foreign objects, such as the end of a pen or pencil. In some cases, improper bottle or pacifier use can increase a baby's chances of developing malocclusion. As the New Zealand Association of Orthodontists notes, thumb sucking is a fairly common habit among babies. Up to 50 percent of people sucked their thumb in infancy. The habit only really becomes an issue if it continues after the permanent teeth are in place, or when a child has a mix of baby and permanent teeth.
How to Treat It
Treating an open bite can be more challenging than treating other types of misaligned teeth, notes a study published in the American Journal of Orthodontics and Dentofacial Orthopedics. If it occurs in children with a mix of baby and permanent teeth, it can sometimes resolve on its own as more permanent teeth erupt.
When the malocclusion is caused by a skeletal problem, such as a jawbone that doesn't fit together quite right, orthognathic surgery might be needed. During the surgery, an oral and maxillofacial surgeon will remove a portion of the upper jaw and will realign the jaw bones, so that the teeth better align.
A variety of orthodontic devices can also help correct an opening in the bite. In some cases, a dental appliance can keep the tongue from pushing its way between the teeth, which can be helpful. Special headgear can also help position the jaw and correct the bite.
If you have an open bite, the treatment that will best help you depends on a few factors. Usually, surgery is only recommended to patients who have finished growing. Orthodontic options are usually reserved for children or teens. If you are concerned about the gap between your top and bottom front teeth, your best option is to discuss the issue with a dentist and learn more about which treatment is best for you. Remember, no matter his or her bite, keep your child's teeth healthy by brushing with a toothpaste like Colgate Kids Cavity Protection, which is extra gentle on tooth enamel.