What is an Orthodontic Retainer?

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  • Written By: Allison Boelcke
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 22 November 2019
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An orthodontic retainer is an apparatus that is typically used to keep teeth in place after braces are removed or to treat minor teeth spacing problems. Retainers are usually made of plastic or metal wires customized to fit around teeth. After an orthodontist takes off the braces that repositioned the teeth, a retainer is generally worn for a minimum of nine months to prevent teeth from shifting to their previous positions.

Periodontal ligaments are tissue fibers that connect teeth to its bone sockets. When braces are attached to teeth, they put pressure on the ligaments so teeth can be straightened or otherwise repositioned. Once braces are removed, the periodontal ligaments will naturally shift back to their original positions. An orthodontic retainer is worn over teeth to keep them in place until the periodontal ligaments permanently adapt to the new positioning.

There are three main types of orthodontic retainers: Hawley, Essix, and permanent. A Hawley retainer tends to be the most common type of retainer. It is made of wire that holds teeth in place and clear or colored acrylic that is molded to fit the inside roof of the mouth. This variety of retainer is removable.


An Essix retainer is made of clear plastic that is made from a mold of the teeth. It is made of two pieces, one to fit over the top row of teeth and one for the bottom row. Essix retainer styles can also be used in place of braces to straighten or correct minor teeth problems.

Although most orthodontic retainers are removable and not worn permanently, some major cases may require a permanent retainer that is fixed into the mouth. A permanent retainer is glued to the back of the teeth for severe tooth spacing issues that will not permanently reposition. Permanent retainers are recommended for only major dental situations because they are difficult to keep clean, which can potentially lead to cavities or gum disease.

Proper care and cleaning is essential for orthodontic retainers. Removable retainers should be taken out before eating to prevent food from adhering to them. They should be cleaned every time a person brushes his or her teeth after meals. Retainers can be gently brushed with a toothbrush or cleaned with a commercial orthodontic retainer cleaning powder.

An orthodontic retainer must be worn as prescribed by an orthodontist to be effective. Many retainers are intended to be worn at all times for the first nine months after braces are removed, but some people may have to continue wearing them a couple of days a week or even every night for the rest of their lives to prevent teeth from shifting. If retainers are not properly worn for the prescribed amount of time, teeth can revert back to their old positions and braces may have to be reapplied.


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Post 5

Dear anon104727. I can't believe it. My daughter also developed arthritis right after having braces fitted in her mouth. Doctors dismiss it every time i mention this. She was 14 also 15 now had them taken out slight improvement in her symptoms but not fully. Having her allergy tested for metals. My goodness I wish I could speak with you in person to exchange our stories. We have been through one year of hell. Prior to braces fitted she was a very healthy child.

Post 4

I have also been having problems and suspect that I am allergic to my retainer or other dental materials in my mouth. None of my dentists, orthodontists or dermatologists knew what to do. It took me months to track down a dermatologist in the Chicago area that does dental allergy testing. It is not testing that many dermatologist commonly do. I called Omniderm Pharma in Canada to get the name of a dermatologist that does this testing in my area. Their products are sold under the name Trolab.

Post 3

I am asking medical professionals, please respond to "anon53514". My daughter (14) has been recently diagnosed with rheumatic arthritis and the fact that the onset and symptoms started right after installing her braces has been totally dismissed by doctors, without any allergy tests for metals.

Post 2

Wow! My daughter has the same problem. Any shooting pains in your arms (electric shocks)?

Post 1

I think I may be having some type of allergic or immune response related to the wearing of my orthodontic retainer (the molded composition type material). Has anyone had a similar experience?

The symptoms are swollen, inflamed joints beginning in the distal extremities (hands and feet, then knees, hips elbows). The symptoms dissipate after a few days of not wearing the retainer, and are completely gone after about one week of abstinence.

The onset begins anew when I begin wearing the retainer again. I've seen my orthodontist.

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