What are Retainers and How Do They Work?

A retainer is an orthodontic appliance that helps straighten teeth and provide stability to your bite. An orthodontist will create a set of retainers for you after your braces come off. A plastic or wire retainer is custom-made to fit snugly over the top of your teeth. It can be either fixed or removable. Retainers are typically worn during the night, but some people may need to wear them for longer periods.

Different Types of Retainers

A Hawley retainer is the most frequent type of retainer. This type of retainer consists of a metal wire that runs along the inside of your front teeth and attaches to an acrylic base that sits behind your front teeth. The wires usually have “coils” or “springs” on them to help push the teeth into their correct positions.

If you’ve just had braces removed, you’ll be given a Hawley retainer to wear until all of your teeth have settled into their final placements. If you only have one or two crooked teeth, you will probably get what’s called a “fixed” or “bonded” retainer, which is made in one piece with acrylic on one side and metal on the other, and glue it onto the back of your teeth. Other popular types include;

Invisalign Retainers

Invisalign retainer is the most popular way to discreetly straighten your teeth without braces. It uses a series of clear plastic aligner trays that are changed every two weeks over a period of about one year. It’s important to wear your retainer after completing an Invisalign treatment so your teeth don’t revert back to their original position.

Essix Retainer

The Essix retainer looks like an Invisalign tray but without customizations for your teeth. This type of retainer is a vacuum-formed plastic tray that fits over your teeth and keeps them from moving back into place. It’s shaped like a mouthguard and works in exactly the same way with minor differences. Essix retainers are constructed of thin, resilient plastic that covers the whole surface of your teeth and is frequently detachable. When worn, they are also transparent and practically undetectable.

Fixed Retainers

After wearing braces for a year or more, fixed retainers help prevent any shifting that might occur with removable retainers. Fixed retainers are usually attached to the back of the front teeth where they are less noticeable than traditional metal braces. They’re cemented in place and aren’t visible from speaking distance.

What are the Uses of a Retainer?

Improve smile

People often wear retainers to close a gap between their front teeth or just to generally improve their smile. If you feel like your teeth are uneven and that your smile could be better, talk to your orthodontist. They will probably take an x-ray of your mouth to see how crowded your teeth are. If there is enough room, they can make you a retainer to slowly move the teeth closer together.

Rectify and underbite, overbite, or crooked teeth

Retainers can also help people who have an underbite, overbite, or crooked teeth. Usually, the orthodontist will put braces on first to straighten out the bigger problems and then give you a retainer for any smaller problems.

Prevent relapse

Some people might need to wear a retainer for their whole life. This helps keep the teeth in line and stops them from moving back into their old positions.

Wearing a dental retainer after braces will help you avoid a common problem called an orthodontic relapse or “relapse” for short. Relapse happens when your teeth start to shift from their newly straightened positions. Sometimes the shifting is so slight that you don’t notice it but over time it can become more noticeable.

Relapse can happen for several reasons:

  • Your teeth have a natural tendency to shift back toward where they started before getting braces, especially if proper retainers are not worn.
  • Teeth can move because of changes in your jawbone. If you have orthodontic treatment at an early age and your jawbone is still growing, your teeth may move more than if you had the treatment as an adult (when jaw growth has ended).
  • Your facial muscles and chewing patterns can also cause your teeth to shift out of alignment.

How to Care for Your Retainer

The American Association of Orthodontists recommends that retainers be worn full time for the first six months and then at night indefinitely while you sleep. This will help your teeth and jaws settle into their new positions.

Retainers can also be used to treat minor problems that may develop after treatment with braces. If this is the case, your orthodontist will prescribe the correct amount of wear for your situation.

How Do Retainers Work?

Retainers usually work by resisting tooth movement. The idea is to apply the right amount of resistance so that the tooth doesn’t move but doesn’t hurt either. The rate of force against teeth can be measured with a scale calibrated in millimeters of force per millimeter of displacement.

To care for your retainer:

  • Using a soft toothbrush and toothpaste, brush it gently every day. Rinse it after eating.
  • Soak it in denture cleaner or antiseptic mouthwash once a week. Never use hot water, which may warp the plastic or cause it to fit poorly.
  • Never wrap it in a napkin or tissue. You may accidentally throw it away.
  • Never leave it on the edge of a sink or next to another object that looks like it so as not to throw it away accidentally.
  • Carry it in the case provided whenever it’s out of your mouth, except during meals or other short times when you take the retainer out.

Bottom Line

Retainers are custom-made for each person. When you go for a fitting, the orthodontist will take an impression of your mouth and send it off to a laboratory. The laboratory creates the retainer out of hard plastic with metal wires running through it. When you get it back from your orthodontist, they will check that it fits properly and looks good on your teeth before giving it back to you.

Retainers are used to maintain your teeth straight after braces or an Invisalign treatment has been completed. The retainers are either removable, which you can take out of your mouth when you eat or fixed, which are attached to the back of your teeth.

Nate Becker
the authorNate Becker