The use of orthodontic methods such as braces is an effective solution for aligning bites and straightening teeth, but after the braces have been removed the work is not yet complete. A transition period begins, during which the use of dental retainers can help solidify the new teeth position.

What is a retainer and how does it work?

The purpose of an orthodontic dental retainer

During the time the patient is wearing braces, teeth are moved slowly into position over a period of months or years. Teeth being moved by braces become accustomed to the constant pressure brackets and wires apply, so when these devices are removed it takes some time for the mouth to adjust. The adjustment period involves the settling of the teeth into the new alignment created by the orthodontics. To prevent teeth shifting back out of place, retainers are used as placeholders.

Types of dental retainers

Several types of dental retainers are available, and a dentist can recommend which type is best for each individual situation. In some cases, only a temporary retainer is used. Temporary retainers can be constructed of either clear material molded to fit over the entire set of teeth or a plastic and wire combination that slides into place. Clear retainers are more discreet whereas wire retainers are more durable, so there are pros and cons to either choice.

Another retainer type is more long-term and consists of a small wire fixed in place by direct attachment to the back of the teeth. Although this type of orthodontic retainer is reversible, it cannot be taken in and out like a temporary retainer. When making a decision about retainer type, several considerations should be made:

  • Desired visibility of the device
  • Cost of the appliance
  • Frequency of replacement need
  • Anticipated compliance of the patient

How long is a retainer worn?

When braces are first removed from a patient and a retainer is created as a placeholder for the new teeth position, the retainer needs to be worn constantly. Newly shifted teeth can easily shift back out of place over time without retainer use, so patient compliance is necessary to maintain the results. Over time, the new teeth will settle more firmly into the alignment the braces created during active treatment. Then the retainer can be used less frequently on a part-time basis.

If the individual had a permanent retainer put in place, it can be reversed, but the risk of teeth shifting back out of alignment increases. To maintain teeth position, the periodic use of an orthodontic dental retainer will always be an important part of a patient’s post-braces dental care.


Dental retainers come in a variety of types. Some are easily removable by the patient while others are a more permanent solution. Regardless of type, all retainers work in the same way, as placeholders for teeth to be held in a preferred alignment. Regular compliance with wearing a prescribed orthodontic dental retainer is important for the long-term maintenance of a patient’s new smile.

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