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How to Use a Palatal Expander

palatal expander inside of fake teeth

In your quest for the perfect smile, your orthodontist may recommend expanding your palate.  That is, widening the upper portion of your jaw.  This technique is most commonly used during childhood orthodontia, as taking advantage of a child’s natural growth process can prevent problems later down the road.

What is a Palatal Expander?

A palatal expander is a device that is used to widen the upper jaw.  It creates more space in the mouth by slowly pushing the jaw apart.  While this procedure may sound drastic, it’s very common and in most cases very simple.  As we grow, the jaw actually develops as two separate halves before fusing after puberty.  This is why it’s most common to do palatal expansion when patients are young.

Types of Palatal Expanders

Although most palatal expansion is done primarily during childhood, in some cases, adults may also require such a procedure.  There are varying types of expanders depending on the patient’s specific needs.

Rapid Palatal Expander

A rapid palatal expander is a common orthodontic appliance designed to correct crowding, narrow palates, and crossbites.  This device fits over the back teeth and is connected in the top of the mouth by a screw.  Each day, the screw is turned just a little to create gentle outwards pressure on the upper jaw to separate the palatal bones.  Most of the time, your orthodontist will leave this appliance in for a few months, even after the desired space is created, just to make sure your jaw doesn’t slide back into its original position.

Removable Palatal Expander

In the event that the patient only needs a minor correction, a removable palatal expander may be considered.  They look very similar to a retainer but are made of metal, instead of plastic.

Implant-Supported Expansion

Older teens may need an implant-supported palatal expansion.  As you approach adulthood, your jaw begins to settle and finishes developing.  If this is the case, your doctor may use this treatment to widen the jaw.  Screws are implanted directly into the roof of the mouth to apply pressure against the upper jaw.

Surgically Assisted Palatal Expansion

In the case of adults, the jaw is typically full-formed and is unable to be widened with traditional, non-surgical means.  If this option best suits your needs, your orthodontist will surgically insert an expander into the middle of your palate.

What Does A Palatal Expander Treat

Palatal expanders treat three common dental conditions.

Crossbite

A crossbite is when the upper jaw is too narrow to fit together properly with the lower.  In the case of a crossbite, the upper back teeth will close on the inside of the bottom teeth.

Crowding

Crowding is a lack of space between teeth.  When crowding occurs, teeth may overlap and get pushed out of their natural position by one another.  Overcrowding can be determined even if a child’s permanent teeth haven’t fully come through, and can be easily treated with a palatal expander.

Impacted Teeth

Impacted teeth are those that are unable to erupt from the gum line into their natural position.  In many cases, impacted teeth may not cause discomfort or other dental problems.  But in other cases, they may cause pain, or push against other teeth, creating sensitivity.

Are Palatal Expanders Used to Treat Adults

Typically, palatal expansion is something that your oral health professional will catch during childhood.  Using a child’s body’s natural ability to adjust, palatal expansion is a relatively simple procedure that can set them up for oral success.  However, in some instances, adults may also need to have their upper jaw widened.  If your orthodontist believes this is necessary, they will discuss your options with you.

What to Expect When Wearing a Palatal Expander

While ideally, no one wants to have orthodontic appliances in their mouth, sometimes it’s a must to make sure our smiles grow up healthy!  Once the key is turned, there will be a slight feeling of pressure in the top jaw.  However, many patients report that in comparison to having your braces tightened, an expander creates mild discomfort that dissipates quickly.

In addition to pressure, patients may also find that learning to speak around an expander can be tricky for the first few days, and they may experience a little extra production of saliva.  Don’t worry, it’s totally normal!

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