Orthodontic Expander Explained: What It Is, How It Works, & More!

Your orthodontist just told you about an orthodontist device called an orthodontic expander. Maybe you still aren’t quite sure what it is or why they think you need it. 

First of all, be assured it isn’t as unusual as you think. The expander is recommended for both kids and adults and the results are excellent. The process is called palatal expansion, also known as rapid maxillary (upper jaw) expansion.

Let’s learn more about what an expander is, how it works, why you may need one, and how to take care of it. 

What Is an Orthodontic Expander?

Sometimes called a palate expander or palatal expander, the orthodontic expander is a device used to gently and gradually widen your palate to correct a variety of orthodontic issues. The palate refers to the roof of the mouth and consists of two parts: the bony palate in the front of the upper part of your mouth and the soft, fleshy part in the back. Its purpose is to separate the oral cavity from the nasal cavity. 

When recommended for children, it is used to widen the palate before the permanent teeth come in. This supports the need for early orthodontic visits for children because a child’s bones are still pliable and can be adjusted using the orthodontic expander. Without this intervention, the child’s teeth may come in crooked or crowded, requiring braces and sometimes even corrective jaw surgery later.

Palatal expansion can also be very effective for adults, but additional steps may need to be taken along with careful consideration of individual patient factors.

The expander is made specifically for each patient, based on digital X-rays and the orthodontist’s examination. Depending on the goals set by the orthodontist, there are several types of expanders to choose from and the timeline for use is often 6 to 9 months. It isn’t prescribed as often as braces or clear aligners, so it’s not surprising many people don’t know what the expander is and why it’s needed. 

Let’s take a look at the benefits of using an orthodontic expander.

What Are the Benefits of an Orthodontic Expander?

An orthodontic expander prepares the way for healthy growth and expansion in the mouth. The specific ways that an expander helps include:

  • Correcting bite issues.
  • Aligning the teeth properly.
  • Creating more space in the nasal cavity for better breathing.
  • Widening airways to improve sleep and prevent sleep apnea.
  • Reducing incidences of jaw joint (TMJ) disorder.
  • Creating a natural-looking smile and facial profile.
  • Improving overall oral health.

A patient with a narrow upper jaw or a crossbite can face dental, orthodontic, and aesthetic issues. Head and jaw pain is also a possibility due to facial asymmetry caused by orthodontic issues. Early intervention with an expander can prevent many of these consequences.

How Does an Orthodontic Expander Work?

The orthodontic expander is made of mostly stainless steel with two halves that are joined in the middle by a screw. The expander fits against the upper palate and is bonded to the teeth, only to be removed by the orthodontist. After the expander is placed in the roof of the mouth, the screw is turned slightly every day according to the orthodontist’s schedule. The expander slowly and gently moves the bones in the palate apart, under the oversight of the orthodontist. 

The most visible result is the space that opens between the two front teeth as the expander is tightened and the palate starts to open wider. This tooth gap closes eventually as the rest of the treatment plan is carried out. 

Patients experience pressure behind the nose and against the teeth each time the expander is tightened. Some people complain of headaches during this time, too, and saliva production may increase. It’s good to know that none of these issues lasts very long, usually a few hours or less. 

The orthodontic expander remains in the mouth until the orthodontist determines that the patient’s goals have been reached. This also allows the newly-formed bone time to stabilize before the expander is removed. After that, you and your orthodontist will discuss your next steps.

How Do I Care For the Orthodontic Expander?

Your orthodontist will instruct you on the proper care of your expander. The most important thing is to maintain a solid daily oral hygiene routine. It will be more difficult and will take more time, due to working around the expander in your mouth. But it’s absolutely critical to stay on top of good oral hygiene practices so that your gums don’t become inflamed and you don’t experience tooth decay. 

Brush and floss thoroughly and pay additional attention to the areas around the expander. Many people avoid brushing and flossing because of the expander but such avoidance will only lead to more problems in the future. Take care of your teeth now to avoid expensive issues later.

Several tools can help you care for your teeth while using an expander, both now and in the future. A Waterpik helps loosen and clear hidden food particles from the teeth and around the expander. Even a simple liquid syringe can help as well. 

It is also important to avoid eating sticky or hard, crunchy foods or chewing on pens, pencils, and ice. These items can damage or loosen the expander. Focus on softer foods until the expander is removed. You don’t want to incur additional expenses only because something you ate damaged the device.

Orthodontic Expanders Can Help Create a Beautiful Smile

Many people have never heard of an orthodontic expander. However, it is a common device recommended by orthodontists to create more room in a patient’s mouth, especially as the permanent teeth are erupting. Expanders are effective for both children and adults and offer a wide range of benefits for oral health and facial symmetry.  

Here at Reed and Sahlaney Orthodontics, we specialize in a variety of orthodontic treatments, including orthodontic expanders, to correct crowding and alignment issues. Our patients can look forward to a beautiful, straight smile they are proud to show off!

Our team is highly experienced and qualified for any orthodontic work you and your family may need. Consider us part of your team dedicated to a healthy mouth and teeth for life.

Contact us today!