Braces and Me

This will be the introductory and title post on a brand-new category on this blog.

I am, unless I turn out to defy all reasonable mortality expectations, emphatically on the wrong side of the halfway mark in my life.

Ever since I was a child, I’ve been — with good reason — embarrassed by my smile, to the point that I generally try not to smile, especially not when there is a camera in operation.  My teeth are widely and irregularly spaced, are not terribly straight, and by this point in life are pretty well-stained by years of propping up a good portion of the world’s coffee growers.  Some time ago, on Instapundit, I ran across a link to an article about a study that some researchers did on what, exactly, people first notice when they meet a stranger, with a specific view towards what prompts a favorable versus an unfavorable reaction in them.  The results were broken down by male and female.  I can’t remember much about the article at this point (and a half-hearted attempt to find it just now came up dry), but what I do recall is that both men and women responded that the top thing they noticed, both favorable and unfavorable, were the teeth.  Not the eyes, not — for women — the breasts, not the butt or the legs or the hair (unless perhaps hairy legs?), but the teeth.

My pediatric dentist repeatedly advised my parents back in the day not to put braces on our teeth “until our heads quit growing,” his point being, I guess, that it doesn’t really do much good to align the teeth in a skull the dimensional relationships in which are still changing.  Can’t argue with that as a proposition of theory.  On the other hand, the world is full of adult people running around with beautiful smiles and who had braces slapped on them at age 14 or so.  As well, back then I don’t think my parents could have afforded braces in any event, so perhaps his recommendation, however ill-advised, was superfluous.  I will say this much about this dentist’s competence:  He never once did bite wings on my brother or me, with the result that when I went for my DODMERB (Dept. of Defense Medical Examination Review Board) physical, in connection with applications to the service academies and NROTC, and that dentist actually did shoot my mouth, he looked at me and said (I still vividly recall this), “Kid, you’re going to lose some teeth if you don’t get some fillings ASAP.”  Sure enough, several of my teeth had enamel that hadn’t properly joined up in the cusp, thereby exposing the softer material underlying to a decade or more of abuse.  The cavities had penetrated down and hollowed them out, with the result that one is now a crown and the other — or rather, its remains, as that crown came off years ago and I didn’t have the money to replace it — is just the stumps of roots surrounding the post of the root canal.  It will have to be pulled and an implant — which I also can’t really afford — stuck in its place.  So much for my pediatric dentist’s competence.

And then I was grown and in the Navy and then law skool and then came marriage and three children and suddenly here I am on the back side of life and still embarrassed to smile at strangers.  So for my birthday, recently, my wife and my mother cooked up the notion of getting me braces.  The wife is from California, where a perfectly-aligned blazing white smile is an article of faith right up there with “global warming” and the benefits of regulating capitalistic enterprise out of existence, and so all three of my boys have not only been dragged to a very nice Jewish dentist but also a very nice Jewish orthodontist for years now.  [Lest Gentle Reader task me with ethnic animosity for that last remark, I’ll pass along that where the wife grew up, most of her neighbors and playmates were Jewish, they all went to Jewish orthodontists and dentists (as did the (Roman Catholic) wife and her 137 sisters), and they all had perfect teeth.  The idea that the guy hammering away at her and the kids’ teeth is Jewish is in the nature of medical comfort food for her; I’m not sure she’d trust a goy to Get It Right.  I say that in all seriousness; her own life experiences have imprinted in her psyche the notion that if you want the job done right, the first time, with no bullshit or tap-dancing, all else being equal you go find a Jewish guy to do it.]

And so several weeks ago I too made the trek.  I’d figured I was going to get me a “grill,” as I’m told such things are now called.  Hadn’t made up my mind how I was going to respond to people’s commenting on what someone my age is doing wearing a teenager’s dental devices.  Sometimes the truth is the simplest, after all:  These are a birthday present from my wife and parents.  But lo! when I got there I found that what was proposed was not the zareba of steel (festooned with pieces of the wearer’s last meal) that we all knew and loved as children, but rather something calling itself “Invisaligns” (cute name; get it? “invisible” and “align”).  They’re clear (mostly) plastic brackets (“trays” is what the manufacturer calls them) that are custom-manufactured to clamp in a progressive series over the wearer’s teeth and slowly jerk them from where they are to where they ought to be.

The process starts with shoving a tiny camera — I think it’s a laser beam — in to image the patient’s mouth in a series of probably 40 or more separate shots, front sides, back sides, and tops.  The computer collates all the individual shots taken and produces a fully-rotatable, three-dimensional image of exactly what each tooth looks like, where it is in relation to the others, and how it is aligned relative to the jaw.  It’s pretty neat to see, to be truthful, when you’re looking from the inside of your jaw out at the backsides of all your teeth, a tongue’s-eye view, so to speak.  Very much a what’ll-they-think-of-next sort of sensation.  The orthodontist then takes that computer imagery and uses it to design a program of “trays” which will, in the proper sequence and at the proper speed, move the patient’s teeth into their proper locations.  At least for the present, each set of “trays” is worn for two weeks.  The orthodontist can scroll you through your planned progression right there on the screen, so that you can, in a quasi-time-lapse sequence, see exactly how your teeth are going to be moving.  Or at least that’s the idea.

After about six weeks or so you receive your first sets of trays.  They just snap over your teeth and that’s that.  Unless someone’s looking very carefully they really are not obtrusive to the observer.  You can’t fully close your teeth with them in, of course, because the thickness of the plastic encases the entire exposed surface of every tooth.  So if you try to put your teeth together and grin it looks a bit like you’re snarling.

You have to wear them at least 22 hours a day.  You can’t eat with them in.  You can’t drink anything hot (like coffee, tea, or soup) because of the risk of the plastic softening.  You’re not advised to drink anything, like red wine, that would stain them.  About the only thing they allow you can consume without taking them out is water.  After eating you have to floss, brush your teeth, and clean your “trays”; you of course have to do so upon rising and before going to bed.  What this works out to is that if you’re at all diligent you’re going to end up brushing and flossing anywhere from four to six times a day.  It also means you’re going to lose weight during the process.  It’s such a pain in the butt to eat that you pretty rapidly get to the point where it’s just not worth it.  Since I can start to miss a meal or 20, that’s not really a bug but a feature for me.

In terms of cleaning, my orthodontist adjured me to avoid brushing with tooth-whitening toothpaste (risk of scratching and compromising transparency) or denture cleaners (too harsh).  In fact, the product specifically recommended to me was regular old Dawn dishwashing liquid (the blue kind; not sure why but the color was specifically part of the recommendation).  So now at the office and at home I have a cup and a small bottle of Dawn.  Before I eat (if at home), or while I’m flossing and brushing (if at the office), I’ll pop my “trays” into a cup of lukewarm water with a tiny dollop of Dawn in it.  Then after brushing I’ll rinse the Dawn off under running water and use a tiny bit of toothpaste to scrub them down.  I figure even if the plastic gets a little scarred, at the worst I’ll be done with that set in another ten or so days and what’s it to me.

How to track how long you’ve had your trays out?  I hit upon the notion of setting the timer on my phone at two hours each morning.  Then, when I pop them out to eat or drink, I start the timer counting down.  When I put them back in I pause the timer and I have exactly how much time for that day is left.  I find that I generally am left with 45 or so minutes at the end of each day, and that’s with eating my meals quickly but not bolting (I trained in Germany and so eat pretty fast in any event, although nowhere near as fast as the Germans can).

Discomfort?  I had a sense of movement for about two or three days with the first set of trays, and then it went away.  I just started the second set on Thanksgiving Day, and I have to say I really didn’t notice much movement at all, and what little I did has already vanished.  I don’t know whether it’s that I’m just fortunate enough not to be bothered by the process — just as some people experience extreme pain with traditional braces and others little or none, so also with Invisaligns — or whether my teeth, being mounted in a bone jaw that is several decades older and more brittle than what these things were designed to deal with, are simply successfully resisting the trays’ plastic and so in effect moving the plastic, instead of the other way around, but I’ve experienced so far nothing that I can describe as discomfort.  That may change, of course.  With the next set they’re going to glue tiny spuds onto my teeth at various places — the precise number and location varies with the specific patient — the better to jerk things around.  That may start the circus; maybe not.

I will say that having a set of large foreign objects in the mouth is disconcerting.  I’m not sure I’ll ever get used to that.  The plastic’s coefficient of friction is noticeably different from that of your teeth’s surfaces, and so the insides of your lips feel like they’re sticking to your teeth as you try to speak.  Additionally, because the plastic fully encloses the teeth’s surfaces, you cannot force air between your teeth while wearing your trays, which alters your pronunciation of certain vocables like “f” and “th”.  I also have the sensation of dryness in the mouth, largely as a result of the tongue’s wanting to “stick” to the back sides of the teeth.

Some days ago I was planning on drinking me a beer or twelve.  One thing I’d not seen was any warning on whether the alcohol in alcoholic beverages has any deleterious effect on the plastic, either visually or structurally.  So I Googled it, and came up with a raft of blogs about Invisaligns (apparently I’m not the only person who likes to drink me some beer, trays or no trays), including this one.  The poor ol’ gal who runs the linked blog has had, to judge from her posts, what must be in a very close running for Very Worst Orthodontic and Periodontic Experience, Ever.  In addition to needing her teeth straightened, her natural smile showed an extent of upper gum which she found embarrassing.  In all truth, how her smile used to look (she posted some pictures) didn’t seem unattractively extreme, but then it’s not my smile.  It’s hers.  The long and short is that she’s spent quite a bit of time, and more than a little money, as well as some pretty significant pain, and for whatever reason her mouth isn’t cooperating.  Teeth that won’t stay in place (after 955 days of Invisaligns . . . I was told about 18 months), a failed surgery to correct how much upper gum is exposed when smiling (together with a visible surgical scar across the smile).  The heart goes out to her.  I’ve been humiliated to see a picture of my own smile for getting on for 40 years.  Don’t give up, I guess I’d say to her; not yet.

The answer, the by way, is that you most certainly can drink beer with your trays in.  Your mouth will feel like the non-slip tile floor in a Burger King’s men’s room, of course, and from comments I’ve run across it seems the breath matches.  But then again, drinking beer in any significant quantity (as I like to do when with my friends) leaves your mouth feeling like that tile floor in any event, and who can forget Kurt Vonnegut’s description of breath that smells “like mustard gas and roses”?  Besides, when I’m drinking me some beer it’s not like I’m trying to pick up girls.  Too old, too out of shape, too behind the times for that.  Oh yeah, and I’m married, too.  All of which is to say that at least in my own Life Condition, the watchword is “splice the mainbrace” and enjoy.

I will vouchsafe Gentle Reader further updates from time to time.

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