You can't correct a poor bite with braces or clear aligners overnight: Even the most cut-and-dried case can still require a few years to move teeth where they should be. It's a welcome relief, then, when you're finally done with braces or aligner trays.
That doesn't mean, however, that you're finished with orthodontic treatment. You now move into the next phase—protecting your new smile that took so much to gain. At least for a couple of more years you'll need to regularly wear an orthodontic retainer.
The name of this custom-made device explains its purpose: to keep or “retain” your teeth in their new, modified positions. This is necessary because the same mechanism that allows us to move teeth in the first place can work in reverse.
That mechanism centers around a tough but elastic tissue called the periodontal ligament. Although it primarily holds teeth in place, the ligament also allows for tiny, gradual tooth movement in response to mouth changes. Braces or aligner trays take advantage of this ability by exerting pressure on the teeth in the direction of intended movement. The periodontal ligament and nature do the rest.
But once we relieve the pressure when we remove the braces or aligners, a kind of “muscle memory” in the ligament can come into play, causing the teeth to move back to where they originally were. If we don't inhibit this reaction, all the time and effort put into orthodontic treatment can be lost.
Retainers, either the removable type or one fixed in place behind the teeth, gently “push” or “pull” against the teeth (depending on which type) just enough to halt any reversing movement. Initially, a patient will need to wear their retainer around the clock. After a while, wear time can be reduced to just a few hours a day, usually during sleep-time.
Most younger patients will only need to wear a retainer for a few years. Adults who undergo teeth-straightening later in life, however, may need to wear a retainer indefinitely. Even so, a few hours of wear every day is a small price to pay to protect your beautiful straightened smile.
If you would like more information on 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 article “The Importance of Orthodontic Retainers.”