Wearing Braces - What To Expect, What It's Like, How to Make It Count
Why is it that almost nobody’s teeth come in straight? Once we lose our baby teeth, it leaves gaps, overlaps, crooked canines, and overbites. That’s usually when the dentist says it’s time for braces. My experience with braces began when I was 12 years old. It was a grueling 14 months of teeth straightening that included monthly trips to the orthodontist, the medieval torture of tightening, and another two years of retainers. And I was one of the lucky ones. Some people have to wear braces for years. Some don’t get them until they’re an adult, and they have to foot the bill themselves.
I can’t say that it was an enjoyable process, but I followed the rules and took advantage of the opportunity to have straight teeth, and it paid off. The gap between my front teeth is gone, my bite is straight, and my teeth are in perfect alignment and have stayed that way for 17 years and counting. Below is a recounting of my experience with braces. Hopefully, it will prepare anyone who is getting or currently wears braces with what to expect before, during, and after this rite of passage. I will try not to frighten anyone with the gory details. After all, not everyone's experience is the same. People get braces every day, and they live through it. It’s not always pleasant, but it’s manageable and in the end, worth it.
The need for braces usually comes after all of your permanent teeth come in. Like I said, I was 12, and after a routine cleaning, my dentist recommended that I see an orthodontist. It wasn’t surprising. The gap between my two front baby teeth had not been filled even by the unusually large front teeth that grew in their place. So, my mom made an appointment with an orthodontist who checked me out and confirmed that I would need braces to pull my top teeth together and fix my slight overbite. Luckily, I would not need bottoms, and if I followed the rules, I could have them off within 18 months.
The installation of braces comes in stages. My orthodontist liked to take before and after pictures of my progress for her patients. There’s a special retainer that they fit into your mouth which pulls back your lips to reveal your full set of teeth. After inserting this, she snapped an unflattering Polaroid of my mouth. Then, she filled a tray with a pink paste and had me bite into it, creating a mold in the shape of my current bite. This is called an "impression". It's important to bite down hard and for a long time so that they can get an accurate shape of your teeth. It's cold and gooey and makes you want to choke, but it doesn't hurt and only lasts a minute.
Next, they had to insert spacers. These spacers were little rubber bands that they fit between my two back teeth, actually creating an intentional gap back there. These had to stay in for a solid week so that the metal rings, called "bands", that fit around those teeth could be inserted around these teeth. These would be the anchors of the braces that keep the wire that they thread through your teeth in place. I didn’t realize what they were doing at the time, but I went along with it.
At first, it felt like I just had two pieces of meat stuck in between my back teeth on either side of my mouth, but the pressure that they created and the need pull them out made me sore and antsy later that night.The discomfort subsided as the week went on, but I was relived when they were taken out. What I wasn’t thrilled about was the actual braces were about to go on. I had heard horror stories about how bad it hurt, and I was nervous, but in the end, having the braces put on was actually one of the easiest parts of the whole ordeal.
My braces were installed in the middle of the summer. As I walked back to one of the dental chairs, I heard the orthodontist tell my mom that it would take about an hour to put them on. First, the plastic tool used to separate my mouth, called a "retractor" was reinserted. It pulls back your lips, giving your orthodontist a full view and easy access to your teeth. It's not painful as much as uncomfortable. You also can't close your mouth, or swallow very easily. Your lips get dry, and tired from being stretched, and it's really the most uncomfortable part of the procedure, though it doesn't become unbearable until the final minutes.
I remember watching a terrible soap opera play on the TV mounted in the corner of the room within my eyesight, laying flat in the dentist’s chair with the light shining down on me. First, they took out the spacers with long tweezers. Next, they fit the metal "bands" around the second to last tooth on each side of my mouth.
Then, one by one, the orthodontist, with her cherry-flavored gloves, cemented the little metal squares, called "brackets", to each tooth. Then, it was a waiting game while the glue dried, at least 20 minutes or so of mouth breathing to the sounds of bad acting and dramatic music.Once the glue had dried, a long wire was threaded through the brackets. Then, with a small, wrench-like tool, they were tightened by a hook attached to the bands in the back of my mouth. The excess wire was snipped off, completing the look.
Next, I got to pick out my first colors. The color ties came in long strips. They let me design my own color scheme. I believe my first choice was turquoise. Looking back, I wonder what my pre-teen self was thinking choosing such a bold color for my first round. It was one of many bad color choices I would make over the next few months, even opting for orange and black at Halloween and red and green at Christmas.
Using a long hook, the orthodontist clipped off one of the little circles and hooked it around one of the brackets in a crochet-like move. It didn't hurt or feel uncomfortable. It just felt like any other kind of dental work, a little pressure on the front of each tooth. She snipped off one circle for each bracket until each one was covered in gummy turquoise.
I have to admit, I breathed a sigh of relief once it was over. The skin around my mouth still felt dry and tight from being stretched for an hour. To add insult to injury, the orthodontist held up a poster board full of food wrappers of foods I could no longer eat: gum, caramel, popcorn, nuts, pretzels, and basically anything chewy and gooey. Apples would have to be cut up. Corn kernels had to be cut off of their cobs, and most everything had to be pulled into pieces and chewed in the back of my mouth. I was also handed a small, yellow plastic case that contained strips of wax. I was told to use it if I felt sore, though they didn’t tell me how. So far, though, I felt fine, and I was ready for lunch.
Living With Braces
My first meal with braces was a learning experience. I pulled my sandwich into pieces and tried to chew only on the two back teeth that weren’t covered in metal. It took forever, and I wondered how I wasn't going to starve to death. Still, I was glad that I wasn’t hurting. Dinner went a bit smoother when I realized that I could still use all of my teeth to chew but was still careful not to break any of the foreign objects inside my mouth. The orthodontist said to call right away if a bracket came loose or a wire broke.
Brushing my teeth was a process too. I had to brush each tooth both above and below my braces. Then, I had to thread floss behind the wire before I could floss between each tooth. It was very tedious, but the doctor said that it is very easy for teeth to rot with braces so it was important that I brush and floss regularly.
The next day, I was miserable. Luckily, it was summer so I didn’t have to stay home from school, but I was hurting. It’s a difficult pain to describe. The best way would be to say is that it feels like somebody is pressing on all of your teeth as hard as they can with their thumbs, and the pressure radiates up into your head, giving you a sharp headache and a stuffy feeling as if you are coming down with a cold. I tried rubbing my braces with the wax. That didn’t help. I tried pain killers. That helped a little. I didn’t want to eat. I was miserable, and the feeling lasted a few days. I was relieved when the pressure finally subsided and the pain went away.
After a month, it was time to go get my braces tightened. The colorful bands were removed from the brackets, and I was allowed to pick new colors. Every time this happened, though, my braces would be sore again. The varying degrees of soreness depended on the new techniques and torture devices they would incorporate into my braces experience.
Sometimes they would fit me with a different sized wire. That wasn't so bad except for the time when they didn't cut the back of the wire short enough, and it dug into the back of my mouth for several days until I couldn't stand it anymore and had to make a special appointment to have the wire cut shorter. By then, the back of the inside of my cheek was covered in cuts. Needless to say, if you feel like they didn't cut your wire short enough, don't leave the chair until it's fixed.
One month they announced that they would start me on chains. Chains were a new way of linking the colorful bands to my brackets so that they would loop together. These caused the worst pressure on my teeth for the next few days, worse than any previous tightening had been.
Then, there was the month that I started wearing elastics. First, new spacers were installed in the back of my bottom teeth. I don’t remember these being as big of a deal as the first. I suppose by then I was used to the discomfort. Then, a week later, they installed a metal band around my back bottom teeth and handed me a bag of tiny rubber bands, each one smaller than the tip of my finger. I was to hook them from the band of my bottom tooth to the band on my top tooth, making a kind of guitar string in the back of my mouth. Every time a band broke, I had to replace it with another from the bag. Sometimes they would just wear down until they would basically fall off. Other times, they would snap and break in my mouth. Even a yawn could snap the band in my mouth, setting it off like a sling shot against the inside of my cheek. At this point, I was convinced that they were just trying to kill me.
As with everything else, my body adapted to each new torture device they inflicted on me, and I followed all of their directions. No hard or chewy foods. Halloween was difficult that year. I had to give all of my Snickers, Milky Way, Twix, and gummy candy away. Basically the only candy bar I could eat were 3 Musketeers.
To make up for this, I was determined to get my braces off before the next Halloween. So, I brushed regularly. When my mom would pick me up from school to drive me to my orthodontist appointments, she would bring my toothbrush and toothpaste along with a cup of water and a bag to spit in. It was gross, but they said that I was doing a good job with the maintenance. As a reward, after 14 months, they decided that it was time for the braces to come off.
That day that I got my braces removed, the orthodontist took off my colors and wires for the last time. Then, she unscrewed the rings from my back teeth and somehow scratched off the metal brackets. A ton of glue was left on the front of my teeth, so much so that my regular dentist was cursing my orthodontist even months later, taking off massive amounts of glue during my cleaning. There was a definite feeling of relief in my mouth once everything was out. My teeth felt smooth and tight, like everything was where it was supposed to be.
My bite was perfect now.I used to think that my bite would be fixed when my front teeth would naturally come together when I bit down. Instead, the point is to align your back teeth so that they come together when you bite down. Your top and bottom front teeth should not touch when you bite.
My gums were a little swollen after all of those metal pieces were removed from my mouth, though they didn't hurt. My orthodontist suggested I take a wet toothbrush and massage them for the next day or so. I took her advice, and by the next morning the swelling was down.
The next step was to fit me for my retainer. They gave me an Invisalign retainer, one of those clear ones that you can take in and out of your mouth like false teeth. This required another mold of my new, straight teeth. This time, though, the paste must have been filled too high because it began to drip into the back of my throat, gagging me. I spit and sputtered the mold out and coughed up the pink stuff. Luckily, they had what they needed to make new molds and created a clear, plastic retainer that fit my teeth perfectly.
Wearing a Retainer
Once my retainer was ready, I went to the orthodontist to pick it up. It was the exact shape of my new, straight teeth, thought it didn't always stay there, and I was constantly pushing it back up into the roof of my mouth with my tongue, causing a temporary speech impediment and excess of spit.
I also had a second set of teeth to brush, though this wasn't as bad as trying to brush around metal and wires. The worst part was trying to keep it from staining. Spaghetti sauce and other colorful foods got into the crevices of the clear plastic and stained the retainer orange after several months, and they had to make a new one for me.
I wore my retainer day and night for a solid year. After that, I went back to the orthodontist for a follow up visit, and she said that I could cut back to only wearing them at night. Gradually, I wore them less and less until I stopped wearing the retainer all together after two years. In the end, it was worth it.
Despite the discomfort and constant trips to the orthodontist, I got off easy. Many people have to wear their braces a lot longer, have problems with rotting teeth, and their teeth become crooked again not long after they get their braces off. Braces are a big commitment, and it’s not worth the pain and frustration if you’re not going to follow the rules and maintain your teeth while you are wearing them. Not only is it nice to have straight teeth, but a straight bite can eliminate problems down the road. I feel like my teeth will stay straight for the rest of my life...at least until I need dentures.
Have you had braces, are planning on getting them, or do you have them right now? Share your experiences below!