Many people think their orthodontic treatment is complete when their braces come off or they’ve finished with their aligners. Most often, however, a retainer plays an important role in the completion of an orthodontic treatment plan. Retainers hold your newly moved teeth in place. We also use them to prevent teeth from moving as a natural consequence of aging.
Retainers aren’t an afterthought. They’re an integral part of your orthodontic care. Careful and correct use of a retainer can prevent the need for additional orthodontic treatment later in life. That can be an important consideration, especially if your dental insurance plan caps your lifetime orthodontic benefits.
Besides keeping your teeth in place, retainers tend to generate a lot of questions from patients! Getting your questions answered is important, because during the retention phase of treatment, you may not see your orthodontist frequently. It’s important that you know what your retainer does, how to care for it and what to expect from it.
All you ever wanted to know about retainers
After getting your braces off, you might want to know why you should bother wearing a retainer at all.
First, your newly moved teeth can take a year or more to stabilize. If you’re not careful about using your retainer after treatment, your teeth can move. This is known as a “relapse.” Your retainer can’t correct a relapse once your teeth have moved. Instead, your orthodontist must develop a new treatment plan to move your teeth back to their ideal position.
Certain conditions may affect your retainer wear. If your orthodontist had to correct gaps or crowding in your teeth, for example, that can impact the length and type of retainer you’ll use. Having teeth extracted or missing can also affect retention phase. A good rule of thumb is, “When in doubt, wear your retainer.” Each case is different, so your orthodontist will tell you how long you will be using a retainer.
Retainers generate other benefits besides keeping your teeth aligned. They can also reduce bruxing and bad oral habits, improve oral health, and help manage speech impediments. In addition, your orthodontist can use your retainer to “replace” missing teeth with artificial teeth. This approach is a cost-effective way to improve your appearance without using dental implants, or when implants aren’t practical.
Orthodontic treatment is constantly evolving, but the retainer has proven to work for as long as orthodontics have been around. Orthodontic treatment is a major investment of time and money. It makes sense to take simple steps to protect your investment!
Why retainers are necessary in orthodontic treatment
Some patients want to know why teeth shift following orthodontic treatment. Your jaws and gums play an important role in the position of your teeth. After major orthodontic treatment, these special structures may need significant time to heal fully. Retainers hold your teeth in the proper position, allowing your jaws and gums time to “catch up.” Even after your jaw and gum tissues have fully healed, there is always a risk of your teeth relapsing decades later. As you age, your gums and jaws may change in ways that don’t support your teeth very well. This is why retention provides this extra support for your teeth.
Your teeth might also shift if you completed your orthodontic treatment before you stopped growing, or if your teeth were moved into an unstable position during treatment. Orthodontists work hard to avoid either of these conditions, and retainers help stabilize your teeth once they’ve been moved into their ideal position.
Ultimately, your orthodontist will tell you how long you need to wear your retainer. You may need to use your retainer only for a limited time, or you might need to use one indefinitely. Each case and each patient is different. Your orthodontist will help you understand which approach to retention is best for you.
Since your retainer will be in your mouth (usually overnight), you’ll want to clean it properly. You can find a number of products on the market that will clean your retainer. You can use denture cleaning tablets, or even dish soap. The important takeaway here is to clean your retainer every day to prevent odors and bacterial growth.
Different kinds of retainers
There are several different kinds of retainers, both removable and fixed. Your orthodontist will determine the best type of retainer for you. “Invisible” or Essix retainers are clear, molded removable plastic appliances that cover your teeth. If you’ve used invisible aligners as part of your treatment plan, your orthodontist may opt to use a clear retainer to complete your treatment plan.
A Hawley retainer, also removable, is made from a molded acrylic plate that covers the palate. It includes a “bow” that is visible across the front six teeth. The bow may be made of metal or clear acrylic. A variation of the Hawley retainer has a visible wire that wraps around all of your teeth. Another type of removable retainer includes a spring to provide tension. This kind of retainer can be used to complete minor positioning adjustments. It can also be used to make a minor tooth movement in place of using a more involved treatment plan.
A fixed retainer is permanently bonded to the back of the teeth for added support. Fixed retainers are usually used on the lower teeth. They can be used on upper teeth, but this can cause problems with the patient’s bite. Fixed retainers usually aren’t removed, and can be left in place for years! Caring for a fixed retainer properly is exceptionally important. If you don’t provide proper care for a permanent retainer, you could develop cavities, receding gums and even bone loss. It’s also important to have your orthodontist check a permanent retainer periodically. Damage to the wire can allow your teeth to move.
Your orthodontist can also recommend a combination of fixed and permanent retainers, depending upon your specific needs.
Maintaining your retainer
When you are in the retention phase of your orthodontic treatment, it’s important to visit your doctor on schedule. Your orthodontist will check the position of your teeth and make sure your retainer is in good condition. Your retainer may also need some adjustment, which the orthodontist will perform during your appointment.
You can damage your retainer if you leave it near a heat source or improperly remove it from your teeth. If your retainer breaks, cracks or gets bent or lost, you can contact the orthodontist to have it repaired or replaced. Some patients like to have a spare retainer. If you would like to pursue this option, ask your orthodontist for a quote.
One last note: it is possible to order orthodontic treatments and appliances online these days. (Isn’t the Internet great?) Orthodontic treatments are absolutely unique to the individual. While the cost of an online treatment may seem much more affordable, it’s also possible to undo a lot of great orthodontic work in a short period of time. Using the wrong treatment approach or the wrong appliance for even a short time can produce disastrous results. Your orthodontic health is important, and the best way to ensure the highest quality treatment is to visit an orthodontist in person!
If you’d like more information about retainers, or orthodontic treatment for yourself or a family member, please contact us at (503) 252-5567.