Brace yourself: When adults fix their teeth

Despite the hassle, some grown-ups are getting wire for a straighter smile

Health & Fitness

July 14, 2002|By Linda H. Lamb | Linda H. Lamb,KNIGHT RIDDER / TRIBUNE

Suzanne Axland's son won't be able to whine about all the brushing, flossing, rinsing and cleaning he'll have to do when he gets braces.

His mother is doing it all and surviving.

Axland sports a mouthful of braces at age 38, part of trend that includes several of her co-workers as well as every orthodontist's favorite movie star, Tom Cruise.

What's it like getting braces when you're closer to middle age than middle school?

Probably you won't be called "metal mouth" quite as often. Still, adults who decided to get braces say it wasn't easy.

"My teeth didn't look that crooked ... and I just didn't want to be an adult with braces," said Axland of Columbia, S.C.

What persuaded her was continuing pain from TMJ, or temporomandibular joint disease, which affects the lower jaw. Her orthodontist said braces also could correct her bite and relieve the pain - and they have, she said.

According to the American Association of Orthodontists, about 4.5 million Americans have braces; about 20 percent are older than 18, and 70 percent are female.

"I think it has a lot to do with the fact that everyone's more into their appearance, especially women," said orthodontist Kerry White Brown.

Brown said almost 40 percent of her patients are adults. Most want a more attractive smile, but straighter teeth also are easier to clean, she said.

A bad bite (when teeth don't come together properly) also can cause problems such as gum disease, extra sensitivity or worn-down teeth.

Some adult patients wanted to have their teeth fixed when they were younger, and now they have insurance and can afford it.

That was a main factor for Kate Ballenger of Lexington, S.C. She had been kidded about her crooked teeth but hadn't worried much about them until she was chaperoning a school field trip. A classmate told her daughter, "Your mom looks like a witch."

Her insurance company added orthodontic benefits for adults and, at age 35, Ballenger decided to get braces.

"It's definitely worth it, though it's misery going through it," she said.

The cost of braces varies with different people, orthodontists and appliances. Usually they range from $3,500 to $5,000, with insured patients paying about half.

If a dentist recommends you to an orthodontist, you will have an exam and X-rays to see whether you need braces. The orthodontist will discuss your goals and recommend a treatment plan, sometimes using computer imaging for before-and-after pictures.

Most orthodontia involves braces bonded to the teeth. Attached wires, and at times rubber bands, apply pressure that gradually moves teeth into the desired position.

Jenifer Hollaway, 44, insisted on the newer clear braces that are less noticeable.

"I talk for a living," said Hollaway, who interviews people continually for her job in human resources.

Hollaway had braces as an adolescent, and again during college after her teeth shifted. Now in braces to deal with jaw pain, she said the clear ones are a big improvement over those she had when she was younger.

Invisalign braces are clear and easily removable, but they work only in cases of slight crowding or spacing, orthodontists said.

Kids can be maddeningly careless about their orthodontic routine - oops! lost another $300 retainer! - but adult patients are paragons of compliance.

Ballenger even has had some kid-type fun with her braces. She got red and green rubber bands at Christmastime, orange and black in October and red and black in honor of the University of South Carolina's football season.

As a rule, however, wearing braces is not much fun. Adjustments every four to six weeks can be painful, with wires hurting the mouth for days. There's a list of forbidden foods.

"It's been two years since I had a steak," Hollaway lamented.

Flossing is harder, and you have to brush your teeth after eating each little snack. Cleanup after some foods such as rice and broccoli can be such a hassle "it's just not worth it," Axland said.

Surviving metal mouth

For adults considering getting braces, here's some advice from other adults who have worn them.

1. Always have with you: toothbrush, floss and a numbing product such as Orabase.

2. An electric toothbrush can help you do a good job at home.

3. Avoid foods and drinks that can stain, such as tea, coffee, curry and blueberries.

4. Try to build a support group of others with braces; you can share information and encourage one another.

5. Realize that some orthodontists deal mostly with children, who are passive about their treatment. It might take some effort to get your questions answered and take a more active part in your treatment.

6. When the braces come off, expect to use a retainer long term, maybe forever.

7. Invisalign braces and retainers can absorb tastes such as garlic. Soak in vinegar and water or denture cleaner.

8. Take a painkiller on days you go for your adjustments, and gargle with warm saline solution afterward.

-Knight Ridder/ Tribune

Web sites to smile about

For more information about adult braces, check out these Web sites:

A site for adult braces wearer; includes message board.

American Dental Association site; has lots of information. Do a search for "braces."

Includes orthodontic jokes, tips for all ages and a list of famous people with braces.

American Association of Orthodontists; there's concise consumer information under "news feature

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