All about dental retainers

Though retainers are a vital part of orthodontic treatment, they are often the last thing we think about. But what is a retainer, and why are they considered so important?

Dental braces may have done a great job of straightening your teeth, but that’s not quite the end of the matter. To keep your smile looking great, you’ll now need to think about the immediate future. Inside your mouth, your gums, muscles and supporting bone structure will all need to adapt to the fact that your teeth are now in a new position. But teeth can move around and will soon start to slip back to their old positions. That’s why dentists recommend wearing a retainer to support your teeth and gums while they get used to the improvements that have been made. How long this final process will take very much depends on your individual dental profile. 

What is a retainer? 

A retainer is a device made from plastic or metal which is used to hold your newly straightened teeth in position, so they don’t slowly ‘creep back’ to how they were. All teeth retainers are carefully made to precisely match the shape of your mouth and the brand-new alignment of your teeth. 

What that means is that any retainer is custom-made for you to wear. And if your retainer is to do its job properly, you will need to listen carefully to the advice your dentist gives about how, when, and for how long you should continue to wear your dental retainer.

How many types of retainers are available? 

The types of retainers available are almost as varied as the options for dental braces. However, it’s best to think of retainers in two categories. First, there are removable braces that can be easily taken out and replaced. The second type are fixed (or permanent) retainers which are designed to stay in position.

Your dentist or orthodontist will advise you about the kind of retainer best suited to your treatment needs. In fact, it’s not unusual to find that you require a permanent retainer to stabilise your lower teeth while also being asked to wear a removable retainer to secure your upper teeth. And likewise, after some dental treatments, you may be asked to wear a fixed retainer for a while before then switching to a removable retainer.

Here’s some further detail:

  • Hawley retainers: These are a type of removable retainer which have been in common use for many years. Hawley retainers are dental appliances carefully shaped to fit your teeth. They are precision-made structures of plastic or acrylic mounted on thin metal wire. The main feature of Hawley retainers is the metal retaining wire which is routed along the outside of your teeth to keep them securely in position. They are a strong, resilient solution which gets the job done and can be adjusted if necessary to give a better fit. Some wearers may find Hawley retainers irritate their mouth for a while, and your speech may be slightly affected, but these effects are usually temporary. In addition, some wearers feel conscious that this type of retainer remains quite noticeable to others.

  • Permanent retainers: Also called fixed, lingual-wire or bonded retainers, permanent retainers are bonded to the inside of your teeth. This process uses a stronger wire which is carefully shaped and positioned to maintain the proper alignment after dental treatment. Though some people may experience discomfort at first, this kind of retainer rarely affects speech. Permanent retainers are not usually prone to damage, though their fixed nature can sometimes make it more difficult for wearers to maintain a high standard of oral hygiene. However, fixed retainers can be a wise choice for children who can’t be relied upon to wear removable retainers as often as they should. In addition, some wearers feel more relaxed about wearing dental retainers which cannot be seen. 

  • Clear retainers: Technically described as thermoplastic or vacuum-formed retainers, clear plastic removable retainers are precision-moulded, so they fit snugly and align perfectly with the newly-corrected position of your teeth. The manufacturing process involves first creating a precise dental mould and then pouring an ultra-thin mixture of heated plastic or polyurethane around the mould to create a perfectly shaped dental retainer. The accuracy of this process, and the fact that it uses clear, lightweight materials, make clear retainers feel comfortable to wear. In addition, these retainers are almost invisible, making them a particularly popular option. Though these removable retainers tend to gradually become discoloured, and may warp if subjected to heat, they are not so likely to cause temporary speech problems as with Hawley retainers. 

How much do retainers cost?

How much retainers cost will mostly depend on the kind of retainers you wear and the materials used to create them. The cost of retainers is often included in the overall cost of your dental braces treatment, but, as a guide, the cost of replacement retainers would be as follows:

  • Hawley fixed wire retainers could cost between £70-£150 per dental arch. If they are properly looked after, you could expect them to last for around twenty years.

  • Permanent fixed retainers could cost from £100 to £400 per dental arch. This type of retainer is unlikely to need replacement.

  • Clear retainers will vary in price according to the recommended brand, but most will cost from £50 to £140 for a complete set of upper and lower dental arches.

How long should you wear retainers?

Your dentist will advise how long you should wear retainers. So, with fixed retainers, this means their fitting and removal will have been carefully planned. However, a US survey conducted in 2010 revealed that the majority of orthodontists (more than 58%) preferred their patients to use removable retainers following the completion of dental braces treatment. Those surveyed tended to recommend wearing retainers throughout the day for 9 months before switching to overnight wear. 

Nevertheless, 4 out of every 10 orthodontists surveyed reported that they advised patients to opt for permanent lingual retainers – a solution that would stay in place for a lifetime. Whatever kind of fixed or removable retainer you are asked to wear following your dental treatment, in the longer term, you will probably only be asked to wear a retainer overnight. 

Do you have to wear a retainer forever? 

Whether or not you will be asked to wear a retainer forever depends on the advice you get from your dentist. In turn, your dentist will have carefully considered a number of factors about the kind of dental treatment you received before making those recommendations about your aftercare.

Like any patient, you will be able to see the improvements brought about by your dental treatment. And likewise, your dentist will have explained how important it is to wear a retainer as recommended to preserve the kind of smile you want. 

If you decided not to wear a retainer as advised, this would be risky from the start. Wearing a retainer at the beginning is the most crucial phase of all when your teeth are so ready to slip back into their old positions. And after not wearing your retainer for a month, the dental positioning inside your mouth will have changed considerably. By this time, your teeth will be on the move, and your bite alignment will have altered. As a result, you would need a different retainer to correct all this and would probably be asked to wear it for a longer time during the day. And if you neglected to wear your retainer for a year, it is likely you would have to go back to wearing braces again to save your smile. 

How do you clean retainers?

How you should clean your retainers will depend on whether they are the fixed or removable kind: 

  • Fixed or bonded retainers are best cleaned as you carry out your normal dental hygiene routine. Of course, you won’t be able to remove your permanent retainer, so it should be flossed along with your teeth. In addition, you will need to brush your teeth carefully to remove all food particles and prevent any damaging plaque residues from collecting around your retainer. 

  • Removable retainers should always be rinsed and cleaned in lukewarm water each time they are removed from your mouth. This is best done immediately after you take out your retainer before any food particles get a chance to stick and harden. Your orthodontist will discuss other cleaning methods such as brushing and/or soaking in special solutions. To keep your retainer absolutely clean, it’s always best to stick to the cleaning methods your orthodontist advises. 

Are retainers bad for your teeth?

Dentists are often asked whether retainers are bad for teeth. The answer is always no: Prescribed retainers will never harm your teeth, provided that:

  • you always wear them as advised,

  • you never try to wear an ill-fitting retainer (but do consult your dentist),

  • you keep them well-cleaned, just like your teeth, and clean as recommended.

The PlusDent service

The UK’s PlusDent service treats slight-to-moderate dental misalignments causing problems such as crooked teeth, crowded teeth and gaps between teeth. Starting with a free 3D scan to create a precise digital visualisation of your dental situation, PlusDent’s custom-made transparent aligners will get to work on restoring your smile.

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