What is a palatal expander?

A palatal expander is a device that is used to expand the width of the palate or the upper jaw. Usually, this device is used in early orthodontic work as part of a plan to prepare for a full alignment of the teeth. Expanders are typically used before braces are installed, especially for children. You can think of these devices as the first step to the realignment of permanent teeth.

There is an orthodontic device that we put on the roof of your mouth that pushes your jaw further apart! Don’t worry, though – this expander is a gentle treatment that produces life-long results.

Why is a palatal expander used?

Why is there a need to expand the roof of the mouth? That’s a good question! Generally speaking, misaligned teeth are caused by overcrowding. We might use braces to fix crooked teeth, but braces cannot fix overcrowding. The solution is then to create room in the mouth for teeth to grow and be aligned. When we use devices like this expander, we can create room in the upper jaw that will allow braces to make the most effective improvements.

Crossbites: what are they?

When we examine your mouth and come up with a plan to fix the alignment of your teeth, you might hear a few unfamiliar terms. The most important one that relates directly to expanders is the word crossbite. Crossbite refers to how the molars – or the bite – of your jaws do not match up.

Usually crossbites happen when the upper jaw is more narrow than the lower jaw. While some people find that living with smaller crossbites is perfectly comfortable, there are times when more extreme crossbites make it difficult to chew food. Fixing a crossbite will allow for better chewing, make room for permanent teeth to continue to grow, and ultimately help perfect your smile.

Crossbites: what causes them?

The cause of crossbites has been a subject of research. After all, not everyone is born with a crossbite! Several research studies indicate that crossbites are usually caused by genetics. Like many other things in your personal health, the state of your mouth is also often the result of a heredity lottery. Another cause for crossbites might be delayed tooth growth or teeth that have grown in abnormally.

Types of palatal expanders

The Hyrax expander is probably the most common type. It is a fixed expander, which means it can’t be removed by the patient. It is made of stainless steel and consists of two halves with a keyhole in the middle. It is attached to the inside of the patient’s mouth by a pair of bands similar to those of braces that fit around the patient’s molars. The key is periodically used to gradually widen the expander and the palate or upper jaw.

The Haas expander looks like a retainer with a plastic or acrylic center. That part also has two halves and a keyhole. Removable expanders look like retainers with two halves. They are considered less effective than fixed expanders.

What is the best age to get a palatal expander?

Expanders can be something of an undertaking since adjusting them needs to be done by another person and they have to remain in the mouth for several months. But is there an age where expanding the roof of the mouth is most effective?

It is generally recommended that these devices be used before permanent adult teeth have finished growing, which means that the best age to use one is between the ages of 5 and 16. Most orthodontists use expanding devices after adult molars have grown in but before the other adult teeth in the upper jaw have finished growing.

How is a palatal expander used?

A palatal expander works by gradually pushing the growth plates of the palate apart. The growth plates are on the inner edges of the palate, and they don’t fuse until the patient is in their early or mid-teens. Consequently, orthodontists generally prefer to widen a patient’s jaw before they reach that age. An older patient who wants or needs to have their jaw widened will likely have to undergo surgery. Such patients may wear a palatal expander for several months to keep their jaw at its new width.

A patient whose palate hasn’t yet fused won’t need surgery; they just need the palatal expander. Our orthodontists will have it custom-made for them to ensure a perfect fit. If they are getting a fixed expander, our orthodontists will implant it in the patient’s mouth.

We often recommend that a parent or guardian do the turns for the patient. The patient should tilt their head back in a well-lit room so that the parent can get a good view of the expander. The parent then inserts the key into the keyhole and turns it from front to back for a specified number of times. The parent will usually have to widen the expander once or twice a day.

How to use a palatal expander

Using this device is gentle, effective, and very easy. After installation, your dentist will give you specific instructions as to how often to use the device. Here we will break down the basic steps to give you an idea of how this device works. It is important to note that adjusting this device can either be done at home or at the dental office, depending on the age of the child and the amount of adjustment that needs to be done.

Step 1: The position

It is easiest to use this device while lying down flat with the head tilted back, just like at the dental office. A quick way to achieve the ideal position is to lay back on a bed with your head tilted back over the edge so that the crown of your head is facing the floor. Be sure to have good lighting and to keep the mouth open but relaxed.

Step 2: The key

Every device comes with a key that helps turn the fender which allows the arms of the device to expand. The key is a short metal rod that fits into the holes of the fender in the expander. To adjust the expander, place the key into the hole and push the key toward the back of the mouth so that the holes are going toward the back of the throat.

Remove the key once the next hole is visible, or after you have completed the correct amount of turns. Your orthodontist will tell you how many turns to make each time you expand the device if you are performing the task at home.

Step 3: The time

Most of the expansion of the palate is done over the course of six weeks or more. After the expansion of the upper jaw has reached the ideal width, an expander will remain in the mouth for 4 to 6 months so that the upper jaw can stabilize. After that time, your orthodontist will remove the expander and continue your treatment plan.

Schedule a free consultation for your child

To learn more about how a palatal expander can benefit your child, set up a free consultation at Petty & Bielik Orthodontics. Conveniently located in Oak Lawn, we want to help you and your entire family achieve a beautiful smile, whether it requires braces, Invisalign® or other types of orthodontic appliances, like a palatal expander. Contact us today to book a free consultation appointment.