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Retainers: What Are My Options and How Long Will I Need to Wear One?

Orthoyl May 11, 2022

If you’ve just completed a course of orthodontic treatment to move your teeth into alignment, it’s important to know that the work isn’t done just because you’ve gotten your braces off or finished with your last set of plastic aligners. The next step is making sure that your teeth stay in their new positions because they will shift back if nothing is done once the braces or aligners are gone. To keep up the progress you’ve made, you’ll need to wear retainers.

Retainers are custom-made orthodontic devices designed to hold your teeth in the correct alignment you’ve achieved through treatment. Our specific recommendations for your case will depend on your individual circumstances, but yes, retainers are essential for everyone who wants their orthodontic results to last.

The Different Kinds of Retainers

There are three main kinds of retainers: Hawley, clear plastic, and fixed permanent. Each has different advantages and disadvantages, and our recommendations for yours will be based on what we think will give you the best chance for long-term success.

Hawley retainer: This is the “classic” retainer you probably think of when you picture one—plastic molded to fit the roof of the mouth or the inside of the lower gums with a wire in front of the teeth. It’s a tried-and-true standard with a long track record of success. These are considered ideal for Phase I patients and young adolescents because they’re the most durable and longest-lasting of the available options, as well as being the most adjustable retainer if you need to account for future erupting teeth or dental work. In addition, patients can customize them, picking different colors, glitter, or decals to truly personalize them.

What are the downsides? Hawley retainers aren’t aesthetically pleasing—the wire is clearly visible during wear. They may also cause a lisp, due to the plastic on the roof of the mouth. Finally, patients need to be careful when taking the retainer out, because the wires can bend if it is not removed correctly.

Clear plastic: These retainers are thin molded clear plastic that fits snugly over your teeth, similar to a clear aligners tray. We consider this ideal for teens and adults because they’re virtually unnoticeable when you’re wearing them, making them a better aesthetic choice. They’re easy to take on and off and don’t create a lisp when talking. Additionally, they can be used as a whitening tray and may serve as a “mini night guard” in cases of mild teeth grinding, because they cover all of the teeth surfaces. (For more serious cases of teeth grinding, we recommend a custom-fitted night guard.)

These are recommended for older patients because they aren’t as durable and will wear out over time. Also, they aren’t adjustable for future dental work or erupting teeth.

Fixed permanent: A fixed permanent retainer is a wire glued in place behind the front six lower teeth. (These can’t be used on the upper teeth because the lower teeth would break it off the moment you bite down.) We determine if one of these is called for on a case-by-case basis, because their one big advantage—it’s glued in, so you don’t have to remember to wear it—comes with some significant disadvantages.

Like braces, a fixed retainer means you have to be careful to avoid certain foods that could break it, you’ll need a special technique to floss effectively, and it can potentially trap food and plaque, leading to cavities. It’s also possible for a permanent retainer to break without the patient realizing it, allowing the teeth to move.

How Long Will I Need to Wear Them?

In the immediate period after treatment, we recommend that patients with Phase I or Phase II/Comprehensive wear their retainers full time for the first six months. For simple clear aligner cases or limited cases, that period of full-time wear might be as short as three months. What does full-time mean? When you’re not eating, brushing, flossing, or playing contact sports, you should be wearing your retainer. We’ll let you know exactly how long this period will be for you.

After that, you should wear your retainers every night. How long? Well, how long do you want your teeth to stay straight? Our bodies are dynamic and constantly changing. Retainers are necessary to keep teeth from shifting, even years or decades after treatment. If you don’t want to run the risk of needing to go through orthodontic treatment again down the road, think of your retainers as being for LIFE. It’s like fitness—if you train for a year and run a personal best at the end, you wouldn’t expect to maintain those results if you never exercised again afterward. Thankfully, wearing a retainer is much easier than a workout!

We evaluate each patient individually to decide which retainers will be best for them. Often patients will get a combination of retainers at the end of treatment. For example, they might wear a clear plastic retainer during the day and a Hawley at night. Then, after the full-time wear period is up, the clear one can be used as a whitening tray and the patient can get years of nighttime wear from their Hawley with proper care. Our guiding principle is creating a plan that will give you long-term success. To find out more about the orthodontic treatment options available at B Orthodontics, contact us here today.

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