Dental braces and retainers are treatments used either to improve the appearance or to correct the bite or jaw function. They take 1 to 2 years to be effective, and they need to be looked after carefully.
What are braces?
Braces are commonly used dental appliances comprising:
- small brackets fixed to the teeth
- wires connecting the brackets
The wires gently put pressure on the teeth, pulling them into the right position.
Braces correct problems with crooked teeth or gaps, and with jaw or bite alignment.
Brackets are often metal, sometimes worn with coloured elastic fittings. An alternative, ceramic braces, can be coloured to blend in with the teeth, but they are more expensive.
What is a retainer?
A retainer is a device designed to hold the teeth in position once they have been moved into the right place using braces.
A permanent retainer is a line of metal that is attached to the inside of the teeth to stop them moving.
A temporary retainer does the same thing, but can be put in and taken out. It is usually worn only at night.
Who fits dental braces and retainers?
Braces are usually fitted by an orthodontist, a dentist with at least 3 more years of specialist training in ensuring the teeth are positioned correctly. Some general dentists also offer certain orthodontic services. You don’t need a referral to see an orthodontist, but it can help since it allows your dentist to provide important information to the orthodontist.
How are braces fitted?
If you are going to have braces fitted, you may need to have treatment first to prepare your mouth. For example, you might need to wear an expander for a few months to broaden your upper jaw. Or you might need to have a tooth or teeth removed.
When your mouth is ready, your orthodontist or dentist will clean your teeth thoroughly then put the brackets on. After that, they will attach the wires. This part is fairly simple, and usually takes 30 to 60 minutes.
Most people find their mouth is sore for 1 to 2 days afterwards because the wires will start to pull on their teeth. Pain relief (such as paracetamol), anti-inflammatory tablets and icy cold water can all help.
You’ll need to visit your orthodontist or dentist every 4 to 6 weeks. At each visit, they’ll adjust the wires to slowly pull your teeth in the right direction. Your mouth might ache for 1 to 2 days after each visit. Again, pain relief, anti-inflammatory tablets and icy water can help.
While you have braces, you’ll need to clean your teeth very well. In particular, sugary food and drink can cause white spots on the teeth and decay.
When your teeth have been properly repositioned, your braces will be removed and you will have a retainer made or fitted. You may or may not need to keep seeing the orthodontist from time to time.
How long will it take?
Having braces fitted and wearing them is a long and slow process. You might wear braces for 12 to 24 months followed by a retainer for 12 to 24 months or longer. You should keep your regular dental appointments over this time too.
After treatment, you should look after your teeth as usual by practising good oral hygiene. If you need to, you should continue to wear your retainer.
Benefits and risks of dental braces and retainers
In addition to improving the appearance of your teeth, your treatment might reduce:
- tooth wear from clenching and grinding
- gum damage
- stress on the jaw joint
As with most medical procedures, however, there are risks, and these include:
- scratches and mouth ulcers from the braces rubbing
- tooth decay or discolouration due to poor dental hygiene
- gum infection
- your teeth moving again afterwards if you don't wear your retainer as advised
How much do dental braces and retainers cost?
Costs range from $5,000 to $9,000 for metal braces. The average cost is around $6,000. Ceramic braces are more expensive.
Alternatives to dental braces and retainers
If you have a problem with the position or appearance of your teeth, but don’t want to have braces or retainers fitted, you could also consider:
- invisible aligners — suitable for minor adjustments
- tooth extraction — as a preventive measure to help overcrowding
- removable 'plates' — for some problems in young children
Your dentist should be able to discuss these and any other options with you.
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Last reviewed: September 2020