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A palatal expander, also known as a palate expander, is a dental device that is used to widen the upper jaw of a person’s mouth. Palatal expanders are generally used to correct a cross bite, to create more room in the upper jaw for permanent teeth to come in correctly, or to create more room for teeth that have already come in. Palate expanders are also often used to prepare the jaw and teeth for orthodontic work such as the installation of braces.
The upper jaw is actually a combination of two separate halves separated by what is known as a suture. A palatal expander works by first separating the two halves of the upper jaw and then widening the distance between the halves. While there are several different styles of expanders, most of them work on the same basic principle. Once the expander is installed in the jaw the device is consistently made a little wider. As the expander widens, so does the upper jaw, until it reaches the desired expansion.
Once the upper jaw is widened, bone and tissue fill in the void that was created by the expansion of the upper jaw. For many users, the desired expansion generally takes place within a couple of months, but the expander is usually left in place to allow sufficient time for bone and tissue to fill in the space created. Although palatal expanders can be used in patients of most ages, for maximum effectiveness, they should be utilized before the suture of the upper jaw has a chance to fuse together. For most people, upper jaw sutures typically do not fuse together until the mid to late teenage years.
The process of widening the upper jaw is not without discomfort or pain. Many patients with a palatal expander report minor to severe pain, often in the form of jaw aches and headaches. Pain and discomfort is often experienced immediately after the device is first installed and after each widening. Most instances of pain and discomfort can be alleviated or at least reduced with the use of over the counter pain medication such as ibuprofen, acetaminophen, naproxen sodium, or aspirin.
Palatal expanders are manufactured in two main types or styles. The first type of palatal expander is known as a permanent or fixed expander. As its name suggests, once the fixed expander is installed it cannot be removed except by a dentist or orthodontist. Among fixed expanders, some styles are cemented, or bonded, to the roof of the upper jaw while others are attached directly to the teeth.
In addition to the permanent devices, there are also palatal expanders that are designed to be removable by the wearer. While a removable palatal expander works on the same principal as a fixed expander, the treatment time usually takes longer with a removable device. A dentist or orthodontist can best determine what type of device would best fit the needs of the patient.
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