Patient: “Wait….retainers for life?!!”
Doctor: “Yes, you heard correctly my friend, until death do you part!”
Many patients are surprised that retention is for a lifetime when you’ve undergone comprehensive orthodontic treatment. When you are a teenager, a lifetime seems like a really really long time. However, my adult patients understand this concept of lifetime wear much better because often times this stint in orthodontic treatment is not their first rodeo. They too, had braces as a teen, and ultimately their teeth shifted because they quit wearing their retainers at some point.
This is the best way to understand why lifetime wear is recommended. Teeth move because of pressure applied to them. This is how orthodontic treatment works in fact. We apply pressure to teeth and they move. The same thing is happening throughout your lifetime. Biting forces, lip forces, tongue forces, forces applied by periodontal ligaments and frenums, or habits such as pen biting and nail biting. The list goes on and on. All of these forces are applying pressure onto your teeth. Your teeth will
accommodate and move according to these pressures. The only way to assure they don’t move in an unwanted way is to retain them with a retainer. I always tell the patient if they can stop eating and talking and I can cut their lips and tongue away (sorry, that visual is awful isn’t it?), then I can let them leave here without retainers.
There are a few exceptions to this rule, for example, if a patient has undergone Phase 1 treatment or limited treatment only. Phase 1 patients will not receive a lifetime wear retainer until after they’ve gone through Phase 2 treatment, when all of their adult teeth are erupted. In the case of some limited treatments, the general dentist may have only requested some movement of teeth in order to place a final restoration. In these cases, the final restoration placed by the general dentist would retain the teeth position.
As your orthodontist, we will let you know if you are one of these exceptions or if you have the honor of being in the lifetime wearer club. Don’t worry, it’s not lifetime fulltime wear. You just need to wear it often enough to always fit well and passively. You and/or your parents have invested a lot of time and money into that beautiful smile, so let’s try not to let all of that effort go to waste!