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Do I Need to Wear a Retainer after Braces?

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Yes, it’s likely that your orthodontist or dentist will want you to wear a retainer as the last step in your orthodontic treatment. 

Teeth are designed to be movable, which is what makes it possible for orthodontic treatment to achieve such phenomenal results. But just as they can be maneuvered into perfect position, teeth can move back out of alignment as well. This is especially true right after braces have been removed or clear aligner treatment has been completed. 

A customized retainer device (fixed or removable) is a vital part of the orthodontic treatment that helps ensure that the teeth you’ve invested time, effort, and money in repositioning (yours or your child’s) remain in their proper place.

How long do I have to wear a retainer? 

After completing orthodontic treatment, the duration for which people need to wear a retainer can vary widely based on individual circumstances and the orthodontist’s recommendations. Typically, the treatment plan would look like this:

Initial phase – Right after braces are removed, retainers are usually worn full time for about 4-6 months. During this period, patients may be required to wear the retainer all day and night, removing it only for eating, drinking anything other than water, and brushing teeth.

Long-term maintenance – After the initial phase, most patients can reduce wearing their retainer to only at night. This nightly use might continue for several years or, in many cases, indefinitely. The goal here is to ensure the teeth do not gradually shift back to their original positions, a process known as relapse.

Lifelong use Many orthodontists advise continuing nighttime retainer use for life as a preventive measure. Even years after orthodontic treatment, teeth can shift due to natural aging, changes in dental anatomy, and other factors. Lifelong retainer use helps maintain the results achieved through braces or aligners.

Each case is unique, so following the specific guidance of one’s orthodontist is crucial. They will provide tailored advice based on how the teeth have moved during treatment and how they respond after the braces are removed.

The details: why retainers are necessary

Braces and aligners work because teeth are not fixed in your jawbone like posts set in concrete. Instead, each one hangs in its own socket in the jawbone by elastic periodontal ligaments that attach the tooth roots to the surrounding bone and permit continual micro-movement of teeth in response to pressure from chewing and other forces. Braces and aligners apply pressure in a carefully calculated fashion to control and direct the movement.

The ligaments and surrounding bone are living tissues that constantly remodel through a process in which tissue is absorbed and added in response to tooth movement. When a light force is placed on a tooth, new bone and ligament are formed on the “tension” side—the side from which the tooth is pulling away—while on the pressure side toward which the tooth is pushing, bone and ligament cells are removed. The process is akin to what happens when you draw your hand through water. As your hand moves forward, the water makes way ahead of it, and simultaneously fills in behind it.

This accelerated remodeling process that happens during orthodontic treatment needs time to stabilize once teeth have achieved their desired alignment. Consequently, when braces are removed, teeth will tend to gravitate back to their old position if they are not “retained” in their new one long enough for the bone and ligament to re-form and mature around them. This process can take several months. 

Additionally, collagen fibers in gingival (gum) tissue stretch during orthodontic treatment and until they stabilize, gums can also exert pressure on teeth to return in the direction from which they came. The stabilization process for gums takes longer than the one for bone because collagen cells of the gum tissue reorganize at a much slower rate.

Types of retainers

The type of retainer an orthodontist will prescribe and how frequently and for how long you will need to use it will depend on your or your child’s unique situation. 

Removable retainers are typically made of clear plastic or a combination of plastic and metal (Hawley retainers). Clear plastic retainers tend to be more expensive, sometimes costing up to $300 to $500 for a set. Hawley retainers, with a plastic body and metal wire, usually cost between $150 and $300 each.

Fixed retainers – These consist of a thin wire bonded behind the front teeth. The cost for fixed retainers generally ranges from $200 to $500. They are more permanent and can remain in place for years if properly maintained. They are essentially invisible, which is nice after a year or two of wearing braces, and you won’t have to worry about taking them in and out and possibly misplacing them.

Removable retainers usually need to be replaced every few years due to wear and tear, though they can last longer with good care. Some might need replacement as often as every 6 months, while others could last up to several years. Fixed retainers may not need to be replaced unless they break or become detached; however, they do require regular dental check-ups to ensure they remain securely in place and do not cause any dental issues. Fixed retainers are harder to keep clean.

Reducing the cost of braces

Braces are an important investment for oral health and confidence. The benefits far outweigh the costs of orthodontic care. But that doesn’t help when braces and aftercare just aren’t in the budget. 

Dental insurance can help, but it’s easy to exceed your insurance’s annual spending limit on orthodontic treatment. Insurance may also have a lifetime cap of $1,500 or less on orthodontic treatment or may not cover it at all. Or perhaps you don’t have dental insurance. 

If you want to reduce the cost of dental care, including braces, consider joining a dental savings plan, a trusted alternative to traditional dental insurance. Plan members report saving an average of 50%* on their dental care. For braces specifically, the savings are often around 20% off the usual fee, select plans may offer even deeper discounts. 

And, unlike dental insurance, with a dental savings plan you don’t have to worry about deductibles, annual spending limits or waiting before you qualify for reduced rates. You can use your plan within 1-3 business days of joining to save on virtually all dental care.

There are plans that fit every dental care need and budget. The quickest way to find the perfect dental plan for your needs is with our online dental plan finder — just answer a few questions and you’ll receive a personalized plan recommendation in minutes. Want a quick peek at how much you can save on braces right now? Use our calculator below. 

*Discount Health Program consumer and provider surveys indicate average savings of 50%. Savings may vary by provider, location, and plan.   
All cost averages obtained from the DentalPlans.com procedure search tool, and/or independent research.

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