As soon as the braces come off, many people feel that the hard work in getting a new smile is all done. But wait! There's one critical piece of the process that remains: the orthodontic retainer. What makes this little device so important?
To understand that, let's look at how your teeth are attached, and how they may move. A tooth isn't anchored into the jaw like a screw in wood — it's joined to its bony housing by a unique, hammock-like suspension system called the periodontal (“peri” – around; “odont” – tooth) ligament. The periodontal tissues are living, constantly changing and renewing themselves.
Orthodontic appliances like braces are designed to apply just enough pressure to move the teeth slowly and steadily into new positions. As the teeth are moved, the periodontal tissue gradually re-forms around them, helping to hold them in their new locations.
But tooth, bone and gum tissues also have a “memory” which, if left alone, tends to move the teeth rapidly back to their original places. This unwanted movement gradually lessens, but it can be an issue for a long time after treatment. That's where the retainer comes in.
This little device holds the teeth steady in their new positions until the bones and ligaments have had enough time to re-form — a development that can take several months. It brings the entire process of moving the teeth to a gradual close, helps to prevent trauma and to maintain proper tooth location.
Once, all retainers were made of plastic and wire, and all were removable. These are still popular, and are usually worn 24 hours a day at first, then less often, until (after a period of time) they're only worn at night. Alternatively, in many cases a thin wire can be bonded to the inside surfaces of the front teeth. This type of retainer doesn't show, and it doesn't have to be removed.
How long will you have to wear it? It's hard to say. Teeth are kept in position not only by bone and ligament, but also by a balance of forces between the tongue, lips and cheeks. They aren't permanently fixed in place, but can move over time in a way that's unique to every person. Depending on the type of tooth movement done, we can recommend what type of retainer is right for you, and how often to wear it. Having the right retainer will help ensure you get the best result: a great new smile.
If you would like more information about orthodontic retainers, please contact us or schedule an appointment for a consultation. You can also learn more about this topic by reading the Dear Doctor magazine articles “Why Orthodontic Retainers?” and “The Importance of Orthodontic Retainers.”
We'd like to take a moment to clarify why it is so important to wear the retainer(s) given to you after your orthodontic treatment. These devices, which literally “retain” your teeth in their new and improved positions, are not just for kids. Anyone who has recently had their teeth moved through orthodontics needs to wear them for the prescribed length of time. Here's why:
Though your teeth may now look perfectly aligned, research has shown that there is no “right” position for your teeth to be in that can assure they don't move again — no matter what age you are when treated for malocclusion (“mal” – bad; “occlusion” – bite). In fact, most people will see changes to their bite and tooth alignment as they get older, with or without orthodontic treatment.
For one thing, there is a natural tendency for bottom front teeth to undergo a gradual “uprighting” with age. This can cause them to crowd as they move toward the tongue. And it happens regardless of whether wisdom teeth are present.
In the case of teeth that have been straightened recently, a type of “memory” of their original position may cause them to drift back to it. This tendency gradually lessens, but it may be a problem for up to 18 months.
That's why it's crucial to follow our instructions for wearing retainers. Keep in mind that the plan we have given you is designed to achieve the best possible results in your individual case. Some people will need to wear retainers 24 hours per day, some just at night, and still others on an as-needed basis. You may have received a removable retainer or one that is secured to the back of your teeth. The important thing is to secure the results you've worked so hard to achieve.
You can read more about this topic in the Dear Doctor magazine article “The Importance of Orthodontic Retainers.”