How do braces and retainers work?

Miriam T. Furlong
Orthodontics & Dentofacial Orthopedics
To put it simply, braces and retainers are 2 kinds of orthodontic appliances that place pressure on the teeth to either move them or hold them in place. If there is space and you push on a tooth, it's going to move.

Orthodontists go through many years of training to learn about moving teeth and understanding facial growth and anatomy.

Wearing an orthodontic appliance like braces or retainers only works properly when it's being adjusted by somebody who is an expert. That's why it's very important to see an orthodontist for the best treatment.
Dante A. Gonzales, DMD
Orthodontics & Dentofacial Orthopedics
Braces work by applying a constant force on the teeth that induces tooth movement. The force is produced by the wire that is tied into the braces. The braces help direct the force that the wire is providing. The placement of the braces and the shape of the wires will determine how the teeth are moved. In addition to the braces there are many other adjuncts like elastics, springs, or headgear that also provide directional forces to the teeth and help with their movement.

Retainers work in just the opposite way. Retainers help hold the teeth in place, or "retain" their position. They hold the teeth from the front and back to keep the teeth from moving/drifting. After braces are removed teeth can slowly move back to their previous position or shift due to changes in the body/mouth over time. Retainers worn periodically will help keep the teeth in place.
Straightening your teeth can be accomplished in different ways. The kind of orthodontic treatment you have will depend on your preference and the options provided by your dentist or orthodontist. Traditional braces realign teeth by applying pressure. They usually consist of small brackets cemented to your teeth, connected by a wire, which is periodically tightened by your dentist or orthodontist to gradually shift your teeth and jaw. The brackets may be metal or tooth colored. Sometimes they are placed behind your teeth. Removable aligners are another option for treating orthodontic problems.

Treatment plans will vary based on your situation, but most people are in treatment from one to three years. This is followed by a period of wearing a retainer that holds teeth in their new positions.
Unfortunately, there is no quick fix for teeth that are out of alignment. Orthodontic procedures generally take a long period of time to be effective. The most common orthodontic treatments involve braces and retainers. Braces represent the active phase of the treatment. Getting braces involves having tiny brackets adhered to your teeth. These brackets are then connected with a wire that puts pressure on your teeth and slowly moves them into the correct position. Throughout the course of your treatment, your orthodontist will adjust the wire several times. The whole process could take as long as three years or more. After braces have been used to realign your teeth the retention phase of your treatment will begin. This involves using a removable retainer to keep your teeth in place. It may be necessary to wear your retainer for several years after your braces have been removed.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.