Halloween Isn't Much of a Treat For Orthodontists

Sarah Thompson, 15, of Bel Alton gets help at a Southern Maryland clinic. Halloween usually means more work for orthodontists.
Sarah Thompson, 15, of Bel Alton gets help at a Southern Maryland clinic. Halloween usually means more work for orthodontists. (By Linda Davidson -- The Washington Post)
By Jenna Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 1, 2007

Sometime late last night, the after-hours calls began. Metal brackets glued to tooth enamel began to pop. Wires were twisted out of place, poking cheeks and irritating gums.

Some orthodontists have called it Halloween Hell, Candy Craze and, this year, Black Thursday.

For the next week or so, orthodontists' offices will be flooded. All that hard, sticky, chewy candy and gum spilling out of sacks collected from the neighbors isn't just bad for you; it's killer on braces.

"It's all hands on deck, no vacation time for anyone," said Lee W. Graber, a trustee to the American Association of Orthodontists who practices in a Chicago suburb.

The emergency calls and extra appointments start to trickle in on the days leading up to Halloween, flare on the day after, steadily continue for a week and then taper off as the candy supply lessens. The extra workload can last six weeks, because it takes some patients a while to realize problems, said Harold L. Frank, an orthodontist with offices in Arlington and Woodbridge.

And some problems are not so minor; braces relinquish their straightening powers if any breakage is not corrected immediately. That means scheduling several emergency appointments on an already full calendar.

"Whatever your imagination can run with, it's worse than that," Frank said. "We warn the staff, but there's nothing you can do to avoid it."

Although a majority of the patients are children and teenagers, orthodontists say some of their adult patients also slip up occasionally. That's why orthodontists remind everyone of the rules.

"We always tell them, 'Remember, guys, it's Halloween. Don't eat anything hard or sticky,' " said Kathleen Tompros, an orthodontist assistant in Ellicott City. "But you know they will. It's Halloween."

Andrew Schwartz can usually predict which of his patients will land in his chair most often, but those predictions go out the window during Halloween, because everyone is tempted. Things got so busy in his Rockville orthodontic office last year that he hired another staff assistant for the week this year.

Schwartz, who also has a D.C. office, sees three extremes: There are the perfect, studious patients who follow all the rules and never, ever eat anything from the list of forbidden things. Then there are the kids who try to be good, but he can tell they don't follow the rules -- telltale gum fragments caught in wires and tattling siblings build the case. And then there are the unashamedly bad kids who sit in the dentist's chair, awaiting their appointment, and loudly chew gum.

"It's a traditional bell curve," Schwartz says. "No one is perfect, and not many are that bad. . . . During Halloween, they all break the rules."

Daniel Holter, 12, of La Plata says he is in the second category. He tries to follow the rules, but he also really likes gummy worms, Airhead taffy and Dubble Bubble Gum. Although he has yet to break or bend anything, he has spent hours pulling gum out of his braces.

"Totally worth it," he said.

Kassi Thompson, 10, has been more careful since she busted the spreader for her upper jaw, a precursor to braces, when she bit into a Slim Jim in the summer. She still sucks on Skittles occasionally, but she said yesterday that any other sticky or hard candy she collects while trick-or-treating as a Goth girl goes to her dad and other family members.

"They can have it," said Thompson, a fifth-grader at Walter J. Mitchell Elementary School in La Plata. "All of it."

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