What Are Palatal Expanders?

At Reagin Orthodontics, we want you and your family to experience the best in dental care. On occasion, we may suggest that your child wear a palatal expander to help teeth grow into place correctly. Naturally, you have questions about expanders. Below you’ll find the information you’re looking for.

What is a Palatal Expander? 

A palatal expander is a small device inserted into the roof of the mouth (palate) to create more space in the upper jaw when it is smaller than the lower jaw.

An expander works because the palate (roof of the mouth) has two halves that do not fuse (grow together as one) until adulthood. These two halves can be gradually pushed apart, making the jaw wider to allow more space for teeth to grow in properly. Once the jaw is wide enough, the palatal expander holds the bones in their new position while the new bone is formed.

When Is a Palatal Expander Used?

A palatal expander is often used to correct a crossbite. This occurs when the top teeth and bottom teeth do not come together (or bite) in the right position. This can happen in either the front teeth or back teeth. Crossbites are common in both children and adults Because crossbites can lead to other problems (such as damaged teeth), it is important to correct the problem as early as possible. That’s why palatal expanders are most commonly suggested for children,

Here are other common situations requiring intervention:

Overcrowding.Expanders create space for all of the upper teeth to come in and grow into their correct positions without having to extract any teeth.

Breathing. Because the palate and nasal cavity are both part of the maxilla/upper jaw, a narrow upper jaw makes it more difficult to breathe through the nose. This can contribute to mouth-breathing, which can cause bacteria growth, dry mouth, and halitosis. A widened upper jaw can help improve nasal breathing in some patients.

Blocked teeth. When a tooth can’t come in because another tooth is blocking it due to crowding, an expander can provide the necessary room. This happens most with canine teeth or eye teeth.

Better smile. Expanding the upper jaw can create a wider, more pleasant smile, giving children and teens more self-confidence.

Shortened treatment.In some cases, a palatal expander can shorten the amount of time a child will need to wear braces. Every situation is different, so your orthodontist cannot guarantee that braces won’t be necessary.

How Does a Palatal Expander Work?

Every palatal expander is custom-made for each person. It fits over a few top teeth in the back of the mouth and sits in the roof of the mouth. Once in place, it is cemented or bonded to a few upper teeth, which means the expander is not removable. The device has two sides connected in the middle by a tiny jack-screw that is turned once or twice a day using a special key (as directed by your orthodontist). This gentle pressure outward over time causes the two bones of the palate to move apart. Once the palate is the correct width, the expander will remain in place to allow the bone to form at the gap and secure the expansion, typically 3-6 months.

How Long Would I Wear a Palatal Expander?

On average, patients wear a palatal expander between 9 to 12 months, although it varies for each person depending on how much correction is needed. Separating the palate happens relatively quickly, but it takes several months for the new bone to form.

Will a Palatal Expander Prevent Braces? 

Having a palatal expander won’t necessarily alleviate the need for braces. Some people only need braces because of a crossbite or because of overcrowding, and an expander may help fix those problems. However, a child may still need braces to correct other problems that occur.

Does a Palatal Expander Hurt?

A child often feels discomfort or pressure, especially after turning the screw to widen the expander (a millimeter or two at a time). This pain usually goes away with a few minutes, and the discomfort can be controlled with an over-the-counter pain reliever.

In addition to pain or pressure, your child might experience the following:

  • Headache
  • Tongue discomfort
  • Temporary difficulty speaking
  • Temporary difficulty chewing and/or swallowing
  • A build-up of food debris between the roof of the mouth and expander
  • Increased saliva

In addition, a gap may form between your child’s front teeth, but this is intentional. The palate is widening to allow space for the permanent teeth to come in normally.

How Do I Take Care of My Palatal Expander?

Your child will need to brush their palatal expander several times a day, including mealtimes if possible. They will need to clear out any debris by squirting the expander with a syringe or water pik.

Because certain foods can loosen or damage, bend, or dislodge a palatal expander, your child will need to avoid hard or crunchy foods (like nuts), sticky foods, and candy. They also need to avoid chewing ice and objects like pencils. If the expander does become loose, you should push it back into place and call our office to make an emergency appointment as soon as possible.

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