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What to Do if Your Retainer Doesn’t Fit Anymore

Close Up of a woman's mouth with a retainer

Orthodontic treatment continues after the braces come off. The next phase, the retention phase, is essential for keeping your new smile in place. However, maintaining lifelong results necessitates lifelong retention. Adults comprise a large percentage of current orthodontic patients partially because they did not continue to wear their retainers past adolescence (often because this was not previously emphasized as much as it is now).

If it has been a while since you’ve worn your retainer, you might find it doesn’t fit as it used to. This article will explain the purpose of your retainer and what to do if yours no longer fits correctly.

What Do Retainers Do?

Your braces affect the placement of your teeth, but they also impact everything around them, including the ligaments, bones, and soft tissue. After the orthodontist removes your braces, the teeth need time to anchor into their new positions, or they will quickly revert to their former placements.

A retainer is an appliance that fits over the teeth with just enough pressure to hold them into position without continuing to move them. Most patients will wear removable retainers—either clear plastic trays that fit directly over the teeth or wire Hawley retainers that the orthodontist can adjust.

Like braces, your retainer might initially cause discomfort or pressure, which will resolve as your mouth adjusts to it. Taking over-the-counter pain medication or applying ice to the area should quell the irritation. Prolonged discomfort is not normal and should not cause you to feel unable to wear your retainer. You will need to see your orthodontist if the pain persists.

The teeth can shift very quickly during the first few months after braces. Your orthodontist will likely instruct you to wear your retainer for about 22 hours a day. Unless you have a fixed retainer that you cannot remove on your own, this will require some self-discipline to ensure you comply with your treatment.

Your orthodontist will determine when you can switch from round-the-clock to nightly retainer use, which typically happens three and six months after braces. Nightly use will continue for approximately one year to 18 months. To maintain your orthodontic results long-term, you should continue to wear your retainer a few nights a week indefinitely.

Many patients remain compliant during the 18-month critical period—the problem for most begins after this. Less than half of people who have worn braces continue to wear their retainers past the two-year mark. Because teeth naturally shift as we age, the retainer you received after braces most likely won’t fit after a while without use.

How Can I Tell If I Need to Replace My Retainer? 

If a retainer applies intense pressure to the teeth or provides no pressure, the fit is off. A too-tight retainer can damage your teeth and the surrounding gums. The retainer also could become stuck, which would constitute a dental emergency for which you would need immediate care.

A retainer that is too loose won’t damage the teeth like forcing in a tight retainer can. However, the retainer won’t be able to exert the force needed to work correctly, which could result in your teeth shifting. In these cases, your retainer will need to be adjusted or replaced.

If you are examining your retainer and notice cracks in the plastic, it’s time to order a replacement. These cracks will grow, and the retainer won’t have the strength needed to keep your teeth in the same place.

Like a cracked retainer, you should replace a chipped retainer as soon as possible. Chips can reduce the effectiveness of your retainer, and they can injure your cheeks or tongue if the chips create sharp ends.

Holes in your retainer or areas where the plastic has thinned signify that you need a replacement. Bruxism is the most common culprit of this type of retainer damage. Stress or anxiety can cause you to grind your teeth during the day or night, which can wear down or through your retainer at the most vital pressure points.

Unworn Retainer

If your appliance is tight because you haven’t worn it for a while, but you can still put it in fairly easily, you can wear it without a problem. It is usual for the retainer to feel snug and cause tooth sensitivity in this situation. Wear the retainer full time until it becomes comfortable again, at which point you can return to wearing it as directed.

Do not wear the retainer if you need to force it over your teeth, and never attempt to push through the pain to avoid an orthodontist appointment. If you have doubts about whether it is safe to continue to wear an old retainer, it is best to schedule an appointment with an orthodontist who can evaluate whether the teeth have relapsed. A new retainer often can correct a mild relapse, but significant shifting might necessitate further orthodontic treatment.

The sooner you detect relapse and enter into the second round of orthodontic treatment, the less extensive that process will be. Your teeth that have shifted will continue to move even more without correction, so catching this early can significantly reduce the duration of a re-application of braces.

Damaged Retainer

If you have been wearing your retainer and it suddenly no longer fits, it’s likely you have somehow damaged it, or it has worn out over time.

Clear plastic retainers are easily affected by heat, so if you leave the retainer in a hot place for too long, it’s likely to lose its proper shape. Hot water can easily distort the shape of your retainer, so be careful not to crank up the faucet when cleaning it, and never place it in boiling water to disinfect it.

Store your removable retainer in a plastic case whenever you’re not wearing it to protect it from damage and help you to keep track of it. However, orthodontic offices receive many calls about lost retainers each year—do not delay replacing your retainer because you are embarrassed to have misplaced it.

If you have questions about your retainer, contact us today to schedule an appointment with one of our board-certified orthodontists.

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