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What is an Orthodontic Expander & When is it Necessary?

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When your Tulsa and Claremore orthodontist recommends an orthodontic expander for your elementary school-aged child, you might have a few questions before moving forward with it. “What exactly is an orthodontic expander?” You might ask. “What does it do?” and “When do they need it?”

Before we get into the answers, let’s take a step back. The American Association of Orthodontists (AAO) suggests seven years-old is a great time to take your child for an initial orthodontic visit. By age seven, children typically have some of their adult teeth and their bite is beginning to take shape. At this point, a certified orthodontist like Dr. Patel can see any potential orthodontic issues and assess if your child will benefit from early orthodontic treatment like an expander.

So What is an Orthodontic Expander?

An orthodontic expander is an appliance that gradually widens your child’s jaw and palate, allowing room for their adult teeth to grow in normally or to correct jaw misalignment. Every orthodontic expander is custom-made to fit a child’s natural palate. 

At The Brace Place, we typically suggest a palatal expander in early orthodontic treatment when your child’s upper jaw needs widening. Depending on your child’s orthodontic issues, your Tulsa and Claremore orthodontist, Dr. Patel, will suggest either a removable or fixed expander that is made up of two halves connected by a tiny screw in the middle.

How Does a Palatal Expander Work?

A palatal expander applies gradual pressure to widen the space in your child’s mouth over a 3-12 month period. It’s attached to the upper jaw against the palate and held in place with wires around the molars. Here, we’ll explain how it works:

Orthodontic Palatal Expander

Often, parents’ first question is how to tighten an expander. You simply use a special key to turn the small screw in the center of the palatal expander every day. Activating the screw pushes the palatal expander outward incrementally, less than one millimeter a day. Did you know that the right and left sides of a child’s upper jaw develop as two halves? These two bones — called maxillary bones — don’t fuse together until around or after puberty. So a palatal expander is essentially widening the two sides independently.

Once your orthodontist sees that your child’s jaw has widened the correct amount, the ortho expander will stay in for a few months more so that new bone can develop in the gap and stabilize the expansion.

When Is An Orthodontic Expander Needed?

Dr. Patel might suggest a palatal expander if your child has severe crowding, a crossbite or impacted teeth that look as if they’ll worsen as your child develops.

Crowding: If your child’s teeth are crowding even before all their adult teeth have erupted, widening their jaw with an expander might lessen the need for tooth extractions or braces later on. Crowding also affects how well your child can brush and floss their teeth.

Crossbite: A crossbite is when upper teeth misalign, sitting inside lower teeth because the upper jaw is too narrow. A palatal expander widens your child’s jaw, stacking the top and bottom teeth correctly.

Impacted Teeth: Sometimes an adult tooth hasn’t come in yet because its spot is blocked by other teeth. Widening the upper jaw can open up space for the impacted tooth to erupt on its own into its designated spot. 

Orthodontic Expander Pros and Cons:

We know that early orthodontic treatment like an ortho expander can be a big decision. We can also agree that we’re more used to seeing teens going through orthodontic care than younger children. But rest assured, at The Brace Place we follow the AAO’s suggestion of delaying treatment when issues are mild and only suggest early orthodontic treatment when absolutely necessary. Here are some pros and cons of orthodontic expander treatment to think about:

Pros:

  • Shortens the time your child will need braces later on
  • Lessens the need for tooth removals
  • Creates room for emerging adult teeth
  • Straighter teeth and aligned jaws means more effective brushing and flossing
  • A more aesthetically pleasing smile and improves confidence
  • Improves your child’s breathing
  • Improves chewing and eating

Cons:

  • It takes some time for your child to get used to eating with the expander
  • It can initially affect how your child speaks 
  • Children aren’t always keen on the extra cleaning needed for their expander
  • An expander can cause some tenderness when adjusted, though this goes away quickly

Ways You Can Help Your Child Get Used To Their Expander

Understandably, an orthodontic expander can feel like an overwhelming experience for a child. We at The Brace Place want to share a few suggestions for how you can make the transition more comfortable:

Offer some expander-friendly foods: Make the first few days of expander-wearing more fun and easy when it comes to foods. Soft foods like yogurt, smoothies, soup, or mashed potatoes will help, versus foods that need a lot of chewing.

Be ready to soothe discomfort: Because they’re not used to their expander, your child might feel pressure or discomfort on their teeth or palate at the beginning. Sometimes children also feel pressure in their nose or mouth when the orthodontic expander is placed or activated. Over-the-counter pain relief helps. Cold treats can make your child feel more comfortable and lift their mood.

Help your child with their oral hygiene: Has your child been brushing and flossing on their own these past few years? Now is a good time to get involved again. Show your child how to clean their teeth and expander and help them get used to the extra care and time it takes.

Keep us in-the-loop: Though problems with orthodontic expanders are rare, please contact us at our Tulsa or Claremore office if you have any concerns or questions about your child’s expander. If you see a gap growing in your child’s top front teeth, don’t be alarmed, this is normal and is a sign that your child’s palate is expanding. This can then be corrected with braces in the teen years.

Your Child’s Smile is Our Priority

At The Brace Place, we believe every child deserves a chance at a healthy, confident smile. If an orthodontic expander is recommended for your child, Dr. Patel has 20 years of orthodontic experience helping children successfully navigate early orthodontic treatment. Contact us today to book your free, initial early orthodontic consultation at our Tulsa or Claremore offices.