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What Is an Orthodontic Expander?

By Cindy Quarters
Updated Jan 22, 2024
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Orthodontics is the specialized practice of creating proper mouth and tooth alignment. An orthodontist is a specialized dentist who works only in this area and does not treat such things as cavities, broken teeth, toothaches or other common dental problems. The orthodontist uses many different tools to achieve the ultimate goal of properly aligned teeth. One of these tools is an orthodontic expander. This appliance fits into the roof of the mouth and is used to increase the width of the upper jaw.

An orthodontic expander is typically used on adolescent children, whose skull bones have not yet completely fused. It is attached to four teeth in the upper jaw and is normally cemented in place. The orthodontic expander goes from one side of the mouth to the other, fitting as close to the roof of the mouth as possible. In the center of the expander is a place to insert a tiny key. This key is turned frequently, usually twice per day, and each turn of the key forces the teeth on either side of the mouth slightly farther apart.

As the teeth are pushed apart by the orthodontic expander, the palate — the roof of the mouth — stretches a tiny bit each day. The ultimate goal of this appliance is to make the upper jaw larger, so that it fits correctly with the lower jaw. It works best on adolescents because the bones in their mouths are relatively easily movable, so they can be spread to make the palate wider.

When an orthodontic expander is used properly, the process of expanding the upper palate is quite rapid. The entire upper jaw can be completely resized in as little as a month. After the sizing is finished the orthodontic expander must be left in place for several more months, to ensure that the new palate size becomes permanent and won’t revert once the expander is removed.

Although the best results for an orthodontic expander are obtained when the patient is an adolescent, it can be used for adults as well. The palate is fused after the growth period is finished, but this appliance can still be used to reshape the teeth in the upper jaw, pushing them apart slightly and making more room. This is a good solution for adults who have crowded upper jaws, especially if there are teeth that overlap. Use of the orthodontic expander can help to resolve bite problems and can prevent damage to the teeth from the consequences of them hitting together improperly.

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