Do I really need to wear a retainer after braces?

February 19, 2018

Do I really need to wear a retainer after braces?

By Dr. John White
Smiles by White

Named for the doctor who invented it in the early 1900s, the Hawley retainer was the appliance of choice and used for generations (including when I was a child) to prevent teeth from shifting after undergoing orthodontic treatment. After getting your braces off, you would get fitted with this removable retainer made of bendable wire and durable acrylic that you had to wear 24/7, with the exception of taking it out when you were eating. Some orthodontists are still using it today.

The technology is simple. A bow wire typically surrounds the front six teeth and a clasp grasps selected back teeth to keep them in place, all held together by an acrylic piece that fits against the roof of the patient’s mouth.

I think the technology is dated (from a lifestyle perspective) and don't use it in my practice. In addition to making you have a lisp when you talk, the wires also bend easily. When this occurs, they go from being a passive appliance to an active one that can make your teeth move.

In my practice I use a clear, Invisalign-type retainer that provides numerous advantages. Mostly notably, the retainer has full contact with the teeth to prevent them from moving in any direction. These retainers also are more user friendly, as they do not get bent when you put them in your pocket or backpack, and they only need to be worn about half the number of hours as a Hawley retainer during the first year. After that time period, both retainers are generally only worn at night.
Regardless of the type of retainer used, it is important to note that wearing retainers is an essential part of the overall orthodontic treatment plan. Teeth have a tendency to want to move back to their original position; therefore, retainers are used to stabilize the teeth until the bone and tissue adapt to the final desired position long enough that they will not shift back.