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A child’s smile can light up a room. And, if that smile includes straight, healthy teeth, that is a bonus. Many children, however, need the help of traditional or Invisalign braces and other dental appliances to achieve the perfect smile. A palatal expander is just one of the many additional appliances commonly used during orthodontic treatment.
What is a palatal expander?
A palatal expander is a dental appliance that is custom made to fit each patient’s mouth. It is used on the upper palate, and it is usually semi-permanently installed in a child’s mouth with metal rings around the upper molars. Some palatal expanders, on the other hand, are removable, but these are less effective because compliance is often low. Either type of expander has two halves that are connected in the middle with an expansion screw.
The expansion screw is turned by the user or a parent with a special key to slowly separate the soft cartilage of the upper palate. This expansion occurs over weeks or months because it is very slow. Typically, the expansion is only a millimeter per week. As expansion does occur, however, you may notice a gap between the two front teeth. This is normal, and it shows that the expansion is working. Once the expander is no longer being activated, they will come back together, but braces are often needed next to straighten the now uncrowded teeth.
What Are the Benefits?
A palatal expander stretches the bone and cartilage in the upper palate. This expands a child’s arch to make room for all of their adult teeth. In the past, instead of expanding the jaw, teeth were extracted. Not only is this more painful, but the results are often not as good.
Expansion of the palate also helps to correct a patient’s teeth when they are experiencing a cross-bite of the back teeth. This allows the teeth not only look better overall but to be more functional. Another benefit of an expander is that it can make room for a tooth that has not yet erupted because there are other teeth already in the way. When the jaw is widened, the blocked tooth can erupt normally and in the proper position. In addition, when the arch is expanded, so is the patient’s smile for an overall better appearance.
Expanding the jaw with a palatal expander is much easier to do in childhood. A narrow jaw in adulthood would likely require surgery and extensive dental work to correct. Not correcting the problem can results in speech, biting, and chewing problems for adults as teeth become less functional.
Who Benefits From a Palatal Expander?
Children under the age of 16 are most likely to benefit from wearing a palatal expander. Children typically lose their last baby teeth between the ages of nine and 12. When the permanent teeth finish coming in, usually by age 13, the jaw is often not big enough, so the teeth are crowded or even fail to erupt at all. This is where a palatal expander comes into action. There is, however, a window of opportunity, and the expander must be used before the child’s growth plate, called a mid-palatal suture, has fused, usually between the ages of 14 and 16.
How Long Will the Palatal Expander Be Needed?
The time the expander is to be worn varies from patient to patient. Since the expansion is only about one millimeter per week, it can be a slow process. The expansion usually takes between eight to 12 weeks. Some orthodontists keep the appliance in the patient’s mouth as a retainer for up to six months. This allows for new bone to form in the gap to stabilize the expansion. Other practitioners choose to use a retainer instead of keeping the expander in place.
What To Expect?
After the appliance is first placed, it may feel uncomfortable because it is new, but there should be little to no pain. For the first few days after treatment, you may want to serve soft foods that require little to no chewing such as applesauce, yogurt, mashed potatoes, smoothies, and ice cream.
As the patient adapts to the new appliance in their mouth, there may be excessive drooling, but this is also temporary as the child gets used to the expander. It may also be hard for a child to pronounce certain sounds such as “s” and “t.” The speech will become more natural very quickly.
As the expansion screw is turned, your child might feel pressure in the upper palate, behind the nose, or between the eyes. It may possibly cause headaches that can be treated with over-the-counter remedies such as acetaminophen. This is normal and will dissipate quickly.
Taking care of the expander is just as easy as brushing your teeth. The expander should be brushed every time your teeth are brushed. You should also rinse your mouth out with water after eating or drinking items especially high in sugar. If the expander is removable, it should be brushed every time it is removed. In addition, you should avoid especially sticky or chewy foods, such as gummy candy, as these can get stuck on the appliance and may be hard to get off.
While only your orthodontist can recommend appropriate treatments, kids with small jaws and crowded teeth often need a palatal expander. While an expander will help make room in your mouth, it will not straighten crooked teeth. There are other appliances that often help correct teeth in addition to traditional or Invisalign braces. In all, orthodontic treatment can take time, and patience is often necessary.
Arrange a Consultation Today…
Most treatments last between one and three years, but there are many factors that can affect the amount of time it will take. Following the advice of your orthodontist and complying with all treatment plans will result in optimal results. For a full and comprehensive treatment plan, or a checkup to decide what treatment may be necessary, contact us today and meet Dr. Gluck in person.
2002 Richard Jones Road
Suite A-200 Nashville
Phone: 615 269 5903
Palatal Expander – What and Why
Dr. Joel Gluck has practiced orthodontics since 1983 when he opened his own office in Nashville. He earned his undergraduate degree at Washington University in St. Louis, and his dental degree at the University of Tennessee. Dr. Gluck then completed an orthodontic specialty residency at the University of Michigan, one of the top five orthodontic training residencies in the country. He also wrote an original thesis and received a Master of Science degree.