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Consumer Alert: Orthodontists issue warning on DIY dental work

Consumer Alert: Orthodontists issue warning on DIY dental work (Photo: Steve Snodgrass / CC BY 2.0)

“So, there’s this idea of what teeth are supposed to look like,” said Anna Hanson, wise beyond her 18 years. “People want that and they’ll do anything they can to get it cheaply.”

But at what price?

With braces costing anywhere from $4,000 to $10,000, an increasing number of patients are trying to fix their crooked teeth themselves.

“We have had 13-percent of membership indicate they have seen an increase in patient incidents [where they] tried do-it-yourself (DIY) procedures,” said Dr. Dwayne McCamish, president of the American Association of Orthodontists.

And what could possibly go wrong with that?

David Campbell represents the extreme.

“I'm 49 now,” he told 7 ON YOUR SIDE. “I’ve been dealing with it for 41 years.”

He’s been dealing with the aftermath of a DIY experiment gone very wrong. When he was eight years old, a dentist told him to use rubber bands to close the gap between his teeth. Each morning, the bands would disappear. An orthodontist finally found out where they went.

“He realized that the rubber bands penetrated into my gums,” said Campbell. “They strangled teeth.”

Eventually, Campbell’s two front adult teeth fell out.

He needed braces, a bridge, implants, and then veneers. All told, Campbell claims it cost close to $50,000 to undo the damage.

“I’m not opposed to all DIY,” said Dr. Scott Berman, a Falls Church orthodontist with a bright, wide smile.

Here is his positive take on a few DIY methods and outcomes:

  • Drugstore teeth whitening strips … they don’t bleach all that well.
  • A popsicle stick to fix a small cross bite … bite and push for an hour a day, and might solve it & save money
  • Rubber bands to close a gap … for a small gap, it can gently guide teeth closer together.

But 7 ON YOUR SIDE was surprised to hear him endorse that home remedy.

“Yeah,” said Bergman with that toothy grin, “but the key is, it’s supervised.” By a professional. Who went to graduate school for a long time. And is just one office-visit away.

It’s that lack of supervision that worries him with virtual orthodontists who promise teeth straightening for all under $2,000.

SmileDirectClub.com reports “rapid and exciting growth” without the “hassle of in-person, monthly visits.”

But dozens of customers have complained to the Better Business Bureau about other hassles, like lack of customer service, crooked aligners and missing treatment plans.

The BBB’s Kelsey Owen told 7 ON YOUR SIDE, “You'll notice that they currently have a ‘No Rating’ because of their active complaints, but they are actively working with the BBB and their consumers to resolve these complaints.”

7 ON YOUR SIDE reached out to SmileDirectClub: We sent emails, filled out a web form and called the company.

We asked:

  1. The associations that represent dentists and orthodontists warn against do-it-yourself teeth straightening, or any method that doesn’t include a doctor giving in-person supervision. Do you disagree that in-person supervision by a doctor is necessary?
  2. The BBB reports that there are many complaints against your company, but also that you are working to improve your rating by addressing each of those complaints. What are you doing company-wide to address customers’ chief complaints? If a consumer has a problem, what is the best method to get an appropriate response from your company?
  3. Your company told the BBB that you are experiencing “rapid and exciting” growth. Can you share with us how rapid, and how much growth in the last year or so? How many consumers have joined the Smile Direct Club to date?

Seven weeks later, a spokeswoman from SmileDirectClub did not acknowledge our request for an interview but did answer our questions, albeit indirectly.

Statement from SmileDirectClub:

“SmileDirectClub is proud of its mission of supplying dentists and their patients with quality clear aligners that make obtaining a better and healthier smile more affordable and convenient. Every person who is treated with SmileDirectClub aligners is evaluated and diagnosed by an appropriately licensed independent dentist and monitored closely throughout the treatment process.

“We’re confident in the effectiveness and quality of our aligner products, our teledentistry web platform, and our affiliated dentists who prescribe our aligners. Over the last three years, SmileDirectClub has helped hundreds of dentists transform thousands of smiles. Those dentists continue to use our platform to treat their patients because they know it works.

“Our affordable and accessible model challenges the business interests of more traditional orthodontic delivery models, and, as a result, it is unsurprising that it has generated anti-competitive opposition from some in that community.”

About SmileDirectClub:

SmileDirectClub was founded on July 16, 2014 on a simple belief: everyone deserves a smile they love. SmileDirectClub is the first digital brand for straightening your smile, created after the realization that recent trends in 3D printing and telehealth could bring about disruptive change to the invisible aligner market by matching licensed professionals, a quality clear-aligner product, and customers together. By leveraging proprietary, cutting-edge technology, SmileDirectClub affiliated dentists are providing greater access of care to consumers who couldn’t otherwise afford orthodontic treatment to get a better smile. SmileDirectClub is headquartered in Nashville, Tennessee and has dentists that are licensed in the significant majority of the states using its platform. In July 2016 Align Technology (NASDAQ:ALGN), owner of Invisalign, entered into a supply agreement with SmileDirectClub, acquired a 17% stake in SmileDirectClub and gained a seat on its Board.

Berman understands the lure of a less expensive product, combined with the perceived know-how a consumer can glean on the Web.

“I can Google anything and think it’s real knowledge,” said Berman. “There’s a lot that can happen with DIY stuff, and you don't know what you don't know, you only see success on-line.”

In trying to solve one problem, you could create others.

Taking your own mouth impressions? There’s a risk of choking on the putty.

Bad whitening trays can mean you’ll swallow bleach, leaving you with a burning sensation in your stomach.

Put those trays around a loose filling and you might need a root canal.

Some other teeth-whitening methods can be abrasive and acidic, leading to damage and decay.

Sleep apnea appliances for snorers and ill-fitting mouth guards for grinders can lead to big bite changes that require jaw surgery.

Research all the risks, Dr. Berman advised, before you refuse to put your money where your mouth is.

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