What Braces Were Like

When Grandma Wore Braces

If you asked your grandparents about what braces were like in the good old days, they would tell you those days weren’t so good.

Although rudimentary orthodontics have been around for a long time, straightening teeth only became a professional endeavor in the twentieth century. If your grandmother had braces in the 1940s, they were probably made of gold, because its softness made it malleable. But that softness meant frequent visits to the orthodontist for painful readjustments. And gold was more expensive than it is today.

In the 1950s, wearing braces became really popular, even a status symbol. Check out pictures in high school yearbooks from those days, and you can count dozens of metal mouths. Typical braces were thick bands of stainless steel that wrapped completely around each tooth, covering most of the enamel. Just a thin, white sliver of teeth showed above the band, and brushing those bands and wires was a laborious task. Wires loosened easily, and patients had to go at least once a month to the orthodontist for painful tightening. What’s worse, treatment times were often 4 to 8 years, while today most patients wear braces for 1 to 3 years.

Why were treatment times so long? Orthodontists didn’t have good diagnostic tools. They were just beginning to use X-rays, but even with them, doctors had to do a lot of guesswork. They used rulers and protractors to make drawings and plan their work, cutting and pasting images that they thought would fit an individual’s face structure. Because they were operating on educated guesses, they frequently had to make adjustments to their plans. Now, orthodontists have in their diagnostic arsenal panoramic X-rays, moldings of bite impressions, 3-D modeling and other sophisticated tools. These allow them to create a predictable treatment plan.

Back then, orthodontists extracted new permanent teeth when there was no space for them to grow straight in the patient’s mouth. Braces couldn’t create space, so removal was the only solution. Today, if a child is first evaluated at a young age (7 to 9) when facial bones are more plastic, the orthodontist can use a variety of devices to widen or reshape the dental arch so that the patient can retain all of his or her permanent teeth.

In the old days, rubber bands were frequently used to attach braces on the upper teeth to those on the lower. Shaped like tiny miniature doughnuts, the user would struggle to get them on and they would often pop off in the process, flying across the room, or they would break when stretching them to fit onto the braces. Patients back then had to carry packages of rubber bands to be sure they had enough, and they had to be removed to eat and then new ones put on.

Today, there are no more rubber bands, no more night-time head gears which held retainer type devices in place. Bands no longer cover teeth. They are much smaller, lighter in weight and come in many colors. Other modern options include lingual braces that attach to the teeth on the inside of the mouth or Invisalign, clear removable aligner trays that are changed every two weeks.

Wires are no longer stainless steel. They are typically heat-activated nickel titanium that warm to body temperature as they move teeth in anticipated directions. They don’t need adjustment as frequently as steel wires.

When it comes to orthodontics, things have improved a lot since the time grandma and grandpa were young. Braces now are less noticeable, offer greater comfort, need fewer orthodontic adjustments, and work more quickly.

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