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I wrote this shortly after getting my braces removed last year. It will be of interest only to those who have once had braces or are considering getting them. To the former I say, "Keep wearing your retainers"; to the latter, merely, "Godspeed."


Brace-face. Metalmouth. Train-tracks. Chances are, if you had braces in middle school, you got called those things. One plus about getting braces as an adult is you probably won't be. At least, I wasn't. But I thought them every day when I looked in the mirror.

Ordinarily I'm not that vain a person. I don't go into hiding if I have a zit or a bad hair day. I wear sunscreen and don't usually bother with fake tans, so my legs are pasty Northwest white, and I don't care who notices. I often forget to bleach or trim the rather thick hair on my otherwise feminine arms. My physical flaws are part of me; love me, love my chipped toenail polish. I didn't even mind letting people see me lumbering around nine months pregnant.

But I did not like being seen in braces. I smiled with my lips closed for photos. I would consider going to visit old coworkers if I was in the neighborhood, then reconsider--"I have braces. Maybe I'll wait till after I get them off." Metal brackets and wires lining my teeth, top and bottom, back to front, at age 33, made me feel far more uncool than I'd felt since, well, middle school. And I didn't even *have* braces then.

Part of the trouble was that I didn't get braces for aesthetic improvement reasons. My smile garnered compliments before. People, even dentists, sometimes asked if I'd already had braces. But I did have one crossbite--a spot where, when I bit down, an upper tooth ducked behind a lower tooth instead of settling in front of it like it's meant to--and that was wearing down the teeth in question, and throwing off my whole bite to a degree. It was worth it, said my perfectionist dentist, to look into braces, and get that fixed before I broke the crossbitten tooth in half.

I consulted two orthodontists. What I hoped for going in was the Invisalign option: clear plastic trays designed for your own teeth, which you wear all the time but take out for meals and toothbrushing, and which no one can tell you're wearing unless they look really close. The first orthodontist flatly told me, after I'd waited 45 minutes to talk to her, "No." Invisalign wasn't an option for my case. Titanium was required to haul those teeth into place. And by the way, it was going to take four hours to put the braces on, it had to be from 7:30 a.m. to noon some weekday because that's just how they did it, and I'd have to wear them for about fifteen months.

Maybe I'm not in middle school anymore, but I did want to cry.

The second orthodontist looked around my jaw and said, "There's not much wrong here." I liked him already. "Could I do Invisalign?" I asked him. He shrugged and said I could. But it would cost more because of the lab fees involved in designing tray after tray for each stage, and would also take longer overall. Patients often start with Invisalign, he said, but get frustrated at how long it's taking and how little progress is being made, and switch to metal braces. For adults who want it done fast and economically, he said, metal is the way to go. And by the way, in *his* office they'd put the braces on in about an hour and a half, and I'd wear them, say, ten months.

He was definitely my guy.

So, despite my initial preference, I went with metal. It was just ten months, right? Sure, they'd look stupid and feel scratchy, but I could cope. How bad could it be?

Those who say the first few days of wearing braces feel akin to having been hit in the mouth with a baseball are not exaggerating much. The office staff was friendly and efficient throughout, but there was nothing they could do about that "sensitivity," as they euphemistically called it, except hand me a box of wax to stick on the sharpest spots, and advise me not to chew anything tough this week. My mouth hurt everywhere, on all levels. The metal brackets ripped up the inside of my cheeks when I chewed, spoke, smiled, or slept. Tiny ball-tipped hooks protruded from the rings encircling my molars, and those hooks dug especially deep holes in my flesh. (Months after having my braces removed, when I thought of those wounds, my tongue still dove back to those spots defensively and tried to soothe them.) The roots of all my teeth, suddenly finding themselves under permanent tension and being pulled in new directions, throbbed in protest. Chewing anything was an exercise in pain. Room-temperature chocolate was way too hard to manage--which would have been a matter for heavy grief, except fortunately chocolate melts if you suck on it.

The wax I was supposed to stick on the sharp parts was only of marginal help. I couldn't wear it while eating, as it would come off and get swallowed, so the most painful part of the day--chewing--still had to be done without protection. I learned to take a dose of Advil half an hour before meals, but at breakfast that was tricky. I wake up hungry, as a rule, and want my breakfast ASAP.

Also, eating solid foods was disgusting. Seemingly one-quarter of what I tried to eat ended up lodged in my braces until I was wearing a packed layer of rice, lettuce, meat, and bread all across the front of my teeth. Even on the non-painful days, that drove me into fits of disgust and paranoia.

So for that first week or so, and for a few days every time they adjusted my braces, I relied on a mostly-liquid diet. It's what I still recommend to anyone getting braces. Why torture yourself?

Every time I thought my mouth could not get more full of stuff, they would add another facet. One was "crosswires"--those tiny round rubber bands that middle-school kids learn to snap out of their mouths and send flying across the room. I never mastered that skill, but got all too accustomed to the feel of the things, stretching from one upper canine tooth to the bottom canine on the opposite side. This phase lasted a few months and was intended to haul the teeth in my lower jaw over to the left, to center them properly. (While the orthodontist was fixing my crossbite, he figured he might as well straighten every last tooth in my head too.) At other phases, they added a super-tight rubber band that they laid along the wires, splashing a bright color of my choice onto my smile; and, another time, a new set of molar-encircling rings to my farthest-back molars, which previously had gone untouched.

That made flossing even more of a task than usual, and it was a huge task already. Imagine having a wire fixed across all your teeth, and try to imagine how you're supposed to work a string of floss *under* it to clean between your teeth. The answer is, you get a special tool, a little floss-threader that works like a needle to your thread of dental floss. It does the trick, but only once you get the hang of it--and that alone takes a while. I spent half an hour trying to get all my teeth flossed the first night, and wound up throwing the box of floss across the room. Even once I mastered the floss threader, flossing took five minutes every night. Without braces it takes perhaps thirty seconds. And anyone with a toddler knows how valuable five minutes can be.

Professional dental cleaning was no easier, logistically. I had to schedule three back-to-back appointments on the same day: first the orthodontist, to remove the wires; then the dentist, to clean as best as they could around the glued-on brackets; then the orthodontist again, to put the wires back on. After a few unsuccessful phone calls trying to schedule those ("Oh, sorry, we're not in the office on Thursdays"), I made the orthodontist's receptionist call the dentist's receptionist and work out the times between themselves, and tell me afterward what they decided.

My final sentence with braces stretched a little beyond ten months--it was one year almost exactly. When the nice lady at the orthodontist pried off the last rings and brackets, and took a metal pick to my teeth to scrape away the bits of glue, I welcomed the unpleasant sensation. Gone! The damn things were gone! A good flossing (ah, so quick!) and brushing and mouthwashing rinsed away the stale taste in my mouth. My teeth were slick and clean and straight. The orthodontist set me up with Invisalign-style retainers, which I wear only during sleep, and sent me on my way.

A year and a few months later, I still love the results. I didn't expect to notice any difference besides the absence of the crossbite, but actually my teeth are giving me less trouble all around. Less sensitivity than before, temperature-based or otherwise. Less accidental biting of my cheeks. Almost zero random whacking together of teeth that shouldn't whack together at quite that angle. Yes, I do wear my retainers, and yes, I'd rather not. But if it means keeping braces at bay the rest of my life--hell yes, I'll keep wearing them.

I'm still ambivalent on how I'd answer if someone asked, "Should I get braces?", or "Should I go with metal or Invisalign?" As I just said, I love the results, so yes, it was worth it...but just barely. I imagine if you had truly misaligned teeth before, the "worth it?" question will get a more obvious "yes." As for the second question: well, Invisalign will hurt too, make no mistake of that. But it will hurt less, since you have no sharp metal edges to rip up your soft tissues, and at least you can eat and floss normally. Take that under consideration before you decide. And always get a second opinion.

And keep smiling--even if your orthodontia scrapes a groove in your lip every time you do so.



( 9 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 7th, 2010 08:43 pm (UTC)
I got braces last July. I agree with you about the initial pain, and the need to eat soft foods at first. I still have some problems with things like sandwiches. Can't bite 'em properly -- have to to cut 'em up and eat 'em dorky-style. I couldn't have the wires removed to go to the dentist, though. Had one of the worst diastemas the orthodontist had seen, five full millimeters. They put a "permanent" retainer behind my two front teeth last visit, and the buggers have still pushed apart a bit, even though they are being pulled together from the front and back. I suspect that means they'll have to take off the retainer and put chains back on, which will cut down on my eating yet again.

I'm probably looking at another 8-10 months.

In my case, there were multiple reasons for me not to get braces as a kid. First, the orthodontist my grandmother sent us to said my teeth and my brother's were "exactly the same," which even our dentist didn't agree with. Plus, my brother and my two cousins who had them all seemed to have gotten Bad Orthodontists.

As for the ones I have now, I won them in some silly contest. Well, part of them, anyway.

Apr. 10th, 2010 01:34 am (UTC)
Ouch! Sorry to hear it. One of the things I meant to add was that my case wasn't even very serious or complicated, so imagine the suffering of those who actually do have a lot of tugging and chaining to undergo. All three of my sisters have had braces now, and one involved the opposite of your diastema: her upper teeth were all too narrowly cramped together, and had to be spread apart in some nasty cracking-the-hard-palate-down-the-center kind of way. So I had it easy, all things considered, and it still sucked! Barbaric procedure, isn't it?

I refused having them as a kid myself. But you know, it's probably just as well we didn't have them then. For one thing, the procedures were a tad *more* barbaric in those days (think of all the headgear we used to see), and for another, they didn't prescribe long enough wearings of the retainer. Lots of people (as I'm sure you've encountered) who had braces as kids have had to get them again as adults, because they stopped wearing their retainers--as they were told to after the given year or two--and their teeth drifted back toward asymmetry. Orthodontists now realize a little late that retainers ought to be for life. Oops.

A contest? Heh! Well, that's handy, at least. Kind of.
Apr. 8th, 2010 12:28 am (UTC)
I did the braces things in junior high (a.k.a. the nadir of my life). I also had headgear, which mercifully only had to be worn at night. Once the brace came off, I got top and bottom retainers (or as my younger brother called them, "restrainers"), my chief memories of which are 1) the speech impediment they caused ("Thwell"), and 2) the restaurants I kept forgetting them at after taking them out to eat.
Apr. 8th, 2010 12:30 am (UTC)
That was supposed to read "braces" plural. Also, I'm glad that I went through the ordeal, since I had alignment issues, plus a big gap between my front teeth that would have looked progressively less cute as I aged.
Apr. 10th, 2010 01:36 am (UTC)
Heheh. You know, despite it being nice to get it over with when you're young, you do illustrate why maybe it's just as well to wait till you're older to get braces. Kids are less inclined to take good care of their gear, or actually wear it as prescribed; and also, their peers give them merry hell about it.

The gap between the teeth...so, you're saying Elijah Wood is less cute as he ages? ;)
Apr. 8th, 2010 06:37 am (UTC)
Wow! You have the experience down to a T! I got braces in Jr. High, first on the bottom and then on the top AND bottom. Not sure why they did it that way. I also had head gear that I had to wear at night but I usually woke up to find it had been tossed across the room. I still remember how my teeth felt when they finally came off. I couldn't stop running my tongue along them in class. My one weakness was popcorn. Getting those little kernel slivers out of my gums was the worst!
Apr. 10th, 2010 01:39 am (UTC)
Yeah, apparently they don't give headgear much anymore, because no one ever wants to wear it. Go figure.

Popcorn was definitely a problem. So were nuts--not only the little chunks of them, but that papery stuff on the outsides (the hulls?). Argh.
Apr. 8th, 2010 09:19 am (UTC)
I had braces from the age of 10 through to 15 and I hated them. I had to have 4 teeth taken out and on one memorable occasion the dentist didn't believe me when I said I could feel him wiggling my tooth, and then proceeded to pull two of them out without enough anaesthetic thus beginning a lifelong terror of dentists and trust me when I say terror is the word, not fear. I hated wearing them. I hated wearing the elastics, the headgear at night, the wax on the sore bits, I hated my retainer. I hated all of it. And although I look at pictures of me pre brace and recognise that it did improve my teeth, I'm not entirely sure I could ever want Dan to go through.
Apr. 10th, 2010 01:41 am (UTC)
Five years? And inadequate anesthesia? Ow! You're the one who deserves the hugs. I had a similar experience with a drill for a filling once as a kid...*shudder*. But as to braces--yeah, having refused to get them in high school (and thus agreeing to get them sometime when I was a grown-up), I suppose I can't force my kids to go through it when they're young. Possibly just as well.
( 9 comments — Leave a comment )