Orthodontic retainers are devices that hold the teeth in position after or prior to fitting of orthodontic braces. They are specifically made for each patient and are commonly made of non-corrosive and non-toxic metal wires or of clear plastic.

Why is it necessary to wear a retainer?

After wearing braces for several months, a retainer ensures that the corrected teeth and jaw alignment of a patient do not revert to their former position. Wearing retainers is of special importance to growing patients because as their body grows, their teeth also undergo natural repositioning. Often retainers can last and are worn for several years.

However, not all patients who are required to wear retainers have used braces before as part of their orthodontic therapy. In certain cases, orthodontists recommend to some patients to directly proceed to wearing retainers. This is true when the purpose of the retainer is only to close a gap between their teeth or to move one tooth.

Once fitted with a retainer, a patient, especially one who had not worn braces, will feel a considerable amount of pressure on his/her teeth and gums and may even feel sore for a while. These sensations are normal.

Most patients are required to wear their retainer during the evenings at first, while some are directed to wear them during the day. Orthodontists do not recommend wearing retainers while eating or drinking.


Just like your teeth, retainers require regular maintenance and care. The mouth is home to micro-organisms and plaque as well as leftover food particles, so to ensure that the retainers are hygienically sound, it is necessary to clean them as often as after every meal.

Retainers are either totally made of plastic or constructed of a combination of plastic and metal wires. To prevent them from drying up and cracking while not in use, they are soaked in water or a special solution to keep them wet. There are certain types of retainers that require a particular kind of cleaner; the patient should consult with the orthodontist on what to use.

Retainers that are made of plastic could warp if placed in hot water. Just like dental braces, patients using retainers often must pass dental floss through the small space between the retainer and the teeth.

Common types

Hawley retainer. This type of retainer is the best-known and the most common. Its structure consists of metal loops anchored on an arch that sits in the palate and is made of acrylic. A more recent and aesthetic version of this device replaces the front metal wire with a clear one called ASTICS.

Essix retainer. Essix is a transparent retainer that fits over the entire arch of teeth. Made of polypropylene or polyvinylchloride (PVC) material, the Essix is a vacuum-formed retainer, or VFR. The manner of its manufacture allows the Essix retainer to favorably sit on the surface of the palate because it does not allow the upper and lower teeth to touch as plastic covers the chewing surfaces of the teeth.

Fixed retainers. Unlike other retainer types, fixed retainers cannot be removed by the patient. They are bonded by wire to the tongue side of the incisors. Some doctors prescribe fixed retainers where active orthodontic treatments have effected great changes in the bite and there is a high risk for reversal of these changes. The downside of fixed retainers is that wearing them over an extended period may lead to tartar build-up or gingivitis due to the difficulty of flossing while wearing these retainers.

Other purposes

Aside from helping correct teeth alignment, some patients are required to wear retainers to help with speech problems or to solve certain medical problems. Among the disorders were retainers are used are:

Tongue-thrust. Tongue thrust is when the tongue sneaks through the teeth when a patient speaks. A special retainer with small metal bars hanging from the roof of the mouth restrains the tongue from snaking when the patient speaks. The patient is required to wear this special retainer over a certain period.

Temporomandibular joint disorder. Called TMJ for short, this is a bite disorder that could also be caused by the abnormal contact of the teeth that affects the jaw muscles and the joints in the mouth. It can also be caused by neurological disorders.

Bruxism. Also called teeth gnashing, bruxism is a habit that takes place when a person is asleep that causes abnormal tooth erosion and can caused other medical maladies such as jaw pain and headaches. It is one of the most common sleep disorders and is cured by fitting a retainer that prevents the mouth from completely closing during sleep.