Orthodontic retainers are custom-made devices, made usually of wires or clear plastic, that hold teeth in position after surgery or any method of realigning teeth. They are most often used before or after dental braces to hold teeth in position while assisting the adjustment of the surrounding gums to changes in the bone. Most patients are required to wear their retainer(s) every night at first, with many also being directed to wear them during the day - at least initially. There are three types of retainers typically prescribed by orthodontists and dentists: Hawley, Essix, and Bonded (Fixed) retainers.
An entirely different category of orthodontic retainers are fixed retainers. A fixed retainer typically consists of a passive wire bonded to the tongue-side of the (usually, depending on the patient's bite, only lower) incisors. Unlike the previously-mentioned retainer types, fixed retainers cannot be removed by the patient. Some doctors prescribe fixed retainers regularly, especially where active orthodontic treatments have effected great changes in the bite and there is a high risk for reversal of these changes. While the device is usually required until a year after wisdom teeth have been extracted it is often kept in place for life.
Fixed retainers may lead to tartar build-up or gingivitis due to the difficulty of flossing while wearing these retainers. As with dental braces, patients often must use floss threaders to pass dental floss through the small space between the retainer and the teeth.
Have you been wearing your retainer? It's a question countless parents ask of their children post-braces. Now Case Western Reserve University School of Dental Medicine researchers are getting serious about the question.
"We found little written about the kinds of retainers prescribed and how compliant patients are in using them," said Case Western Reserve's Manish Valiathan, an assistant professor of orthodontics and a member of the American Board of Orthodontics. He notes that there is a dearth of information despite the devices being common in orthodontics practice.
Post-braces, the majority of orthodontists said they required wearing removable retainers full-time for the first nine months and then part-time after that. They also encouraged part-time retainer use throughout life.
Valiathan said that without retainers specific prior conditions may return but that definitive research does not exist as to what conditions require ongoing retainer use. More evidence is needed, he said.