Definition and Overview

Retainers are dental appliances that are usually worn once the orthodontic braces are removed. Their primary goal is to keep the teeth from moving after they have been successfully aligned. Retainers have two distinct types: removable and fixed. Each has its own advantages and disadvantages, which should be discussed with your orthodontist so you can make a well-informed decision.

Removable retainers are called such because they can be removed for cleaning and general maintenance. However, it is ideal that they are not removed for a minimum period of 3 months (unless you have to clean them) in order to get their maximum benefits.

There are two distinct types of removable retainers:

  • Clear retainers – These are also referred to as “invisible” retainers because they’re transparent so people won’t notice that you’re wearing them. They are made from casts taken from impressions of your upper and lower teeth. These casts are used to form the clear plastic using a vacuum-suction procedure and are meant to cover all of the teeth. The only adjustment that clear retainers need is the filing of the excess plastic once they’re done.

  • Hawley retainers – This is the most common type of removable retainer. Hawley retainers are made of a bow wire, clasps and a plastic material that molds to the roof of the mouth or the back of the lower teeth. The wire, with clasps at the end, is worn over the front teeth and keeps them in place. It is attached to a plastic mold that covers the roof of the mouth. The lower Hawley retainer has a smaller plastic mold that fits just the back of the lower teeth. Hawley retainers are the oldest of the retainers but they’re still being used because they’re adjustable and easily repaired. However, their plastic mold can affect speech, which may be a turn-off for some people.

Fixed retainers are the other type of retainers. Unlike removable retainers, fixed retainers, as the name suggests, cannot be removed. They’re attached permanently to the back of the teeth and are very effective in keeping the teeth from moving.

Fixed retainers are attached to the teeth using dental composite (much like cement) with a solid or braided wire running through it. Fixed retainers are often used on lower teeth but may also be used on the upper teeth. The disadvantage with fixed retainers is that they can’t be used on the back teeth, so there’s a danger of them “relapsing” or moving to a less ideal position. Also, because of their construction, fixed retainers can make it hard for you to brush and floss them making it possible for plaque and tartar to build up. However, with proper dental hygiene and regular checkups, this can be prevented.

Who Should Undergo and Expected Results

People who wear retainers need to return to their orthodontist for regular check-ups. The initial check up is typically scheduled within three months following the installation of the retainers. The orthodontist will check if they are doing their job of keeping the teeth in place and if they still fit well otherwise, necessary adjustments will be made.

Regular checkups with the dentist are also essential when wearing retainers. Dental cleaning is necessary to clear plaque and tartar accumulation especially for those with fixed retainers.

How Does the Procedure Work?

The first thing to do is to schedule an appointment with your orthodontist. When coming to the appointment, you need to wear your retainers and bring your special packing case.

The usual procedure is that your orthodontist will make you bite down on a soft mold, with your retainer on and then do the same process with your retainer off. This allows the dentist to assess if your retainer is fitted well or if it needs to be adjusted. Some retainers cannot be adjusted so the orthodontist has to request for a new one which usually means an additional charge and you may have to wait for some time before it arrives.

A retainer checkup is a good time to tell your orthodontist if you’re experiencing any pain or discomfort with your retainers. This usually means that an adjustment has to be made. Keep in mind that pain and discomfort are usually common when retainers are first used. However, if after a certain period, the pain or discomfort persists, you may need to check with your orthodontist.

Possible Complications and Risks

The most common complication that may be discovered with a retainer checkup is that the patient hasn’t been wearing the retainer (in the case of removable retainers) and that the teeth have moved significantly that the retainers are rendered useless. Worst case scenario is that braces have to be installed again to counteract the movement.

If retainer checkups are missed, there is a chance that potential damage to the teeth and retainers will go unnoticed and can result in worsening conditions. These may be the beginning of gum disease due to neglected oral hygiene or a damaged retainer causing more damage to the teeth and possibly misaligned back teeth in the case of fixed retainers. Fixed retainers, though may seem permanent, can also break apart and come loose.


  • American Association of Orthodontists
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