Moving your teeth to a more functional and attractive alignment is a big undertaking. You can invest months — even years — and a lot of expense to correct a bad bite. But all that effort could be for nothing if your teeth return to their original positions.
The very aspect of dental physiology that makes orthodontics possible can work against you in reverse. Your teeth are not actually rigidly fixed in the bone: they're held in place by an elastic gum tissue known as the periodontal ligament. The ligament lies between the tooth and the bone and attaches to both with tiny fibers.
While this mechanism holds the teeth firmly in place, it also allows the teeth to move in response to changes in the mouth. As we age, for example, and the teeth wear, the ligament allows movement of the teeth to accommodate for the loss of tooth surface that might have been created by the wear.
When we employ braces we're changing the mouth environment by applying pressure to the teeth in a certain direction. The teeth move in response to this pressure. But when the pressure is no longer there after removing the braces or other orthodontic devices, the ligament mechanism may then respond with a kind of “muscle memory” to pull the teeth back to where they were before.
To prevent this, we need to help the teeth maintain their new position, at least until they've become firmly set. We do this with an oral appliance known as a retainer. Just as its name implies it helps the teeth “retain” their new position.
We require most patients to initially wear their retainer around the clock. After a while we can scale back to just a few hours a day, usually at nighttime. Younger patients may only need to wear a retainer for eighteen months or so. Adults, though, may need to wear one for much longer or in some cases permanently to maintain their new bite.
Although having to wear a retainer can be tedious at times, it's a crucial part of your orthodontic treatment. By wearing one you'll have a better chance of permanently keeping your new smile.
If you would like more information on caring for your teeth after braces, please contact us or schedule an appointment for a consultation. You can also learn more about this topic by reading the Dear Doctor magazine article “The Importance of Orthodontic Retainers.”