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Diastema is a term used by dentists to describe a gap or space between two teeth, usually the two front teeth of the upper jaw. All mammals can develop a diastema, and the feature even occurs naturally in many animals. The condition is frequently experienced by human children as their primary teeth fall out, although it is typically corrected when the permanent teeth finally appear. If the gap remains after the permanent teeth have erupted, it is likely that the diastema will remain until the child receives orthodontic treatment.
Aside from missing teeth, diastemas may also be caused by teeth that are too large or small in relation to the jaw or by dental alignment problems such as an overbite. In some cases, an oversized labial frenulum is to blame. The labial frenulum is the tissue around the inside of the lip that extends to meet the gum tissue around the upper two teeth. When this tissue is too large, it can push the teeth apart, causing a diastema.
Many herbivorous mammals have natural diastemas between their front teeth and sometimes between their cheek teeth. This is a common occurrence amongst rodents and lagomorphs, which are rodents with four incisors in the upper jaw. Some animals such as anteaters and pangolins have large diastemas between very few teeth.
In humans, diastemas may be treated, depending on the severity of the condition and the reason for its occurrence. Common diastema treatment options include applying porcelain veneers to the teeth, performing crown and bridge work, or teeth implants in adults. Orthodontic treatments and braces may also be used to slowly move the teeth together and close the space between them.
If an oversized labial frenulum is the cause of the diastema, a surgical procedure known as a frenectomy may be performed. During a frenectomy, the tissue is cut and then repositioned to allow for greater flexibility. When the procedure is performed on a child, the gap between the teeth may close naturally over time. In teenagers and adults, braces or orthodontic treatment may be required to close the diastema.
A diastema poses no significant health risks and is commonly seen as a cosmetic problem instead of a medical condition. Many people choose to live with their diastema rather than endure expensive and often painful surgery. In some places of the world, however, space between the teeth is an indication of beauty. Inhabitants of the western regions of Nigeria view diastemas as attractive, and some people undergo cosmetic dentistry to have them artificially created.