Retainers are appliances that are used following orthodontic treatment to maintain the final position of the teeth and prevent them from moving. They play an integral part in the overall orthodontic care and are an absolute necessity for all patients at the end of treatment. Retainers come in various shapes and forms, however, there are two main types: removable and fixed.
Removable retainers are those that can be taken in and out of the mouth. Examples of removable retainers include Hawley retainers and clear, Invisalign like retainers also known as Essix retainers. Hawley retainers are the most widely used retainers and, because they contain wires and clasps, tend to be sturdier and last longer than their clear counterparts which tend to discolour and be more brittle. On the other hand clear retainers are more aesthetic than Hawley retainers and more accepted in social settings.
Fixed or bonded retainers are the second type of retainers and, unlike removable retainers, once placed in the mouth they will stay indefinitely and can only removed by the orthodontist.
Removable retainers offers several advantages compared to fixed retainers such as easier access for brushing and flossing, convenience of removal during social settings, less prone to breakage during meals, easier to clean and maintain. The main disadvantage of removable retainers is that they require absolute cooperation from the patient. If they are not worn as prescribed by the orthodontist they lose their effectiveness and cause the teeth to move. Other disadvantages of removable retainers are that they are easier to misplace and lose, easier to break if they are not handled properly, and inconvenience of having to be removed during meals and brushing.
Fixed retainers on the other hand do not rely on cooperation since they are permanently attached to the teeth and consequently also less prone to misplacement. They are less visible and therefore more acceptable in social situations. Unfortunately they do have flaws of their own such as being a food trap and harder to clean around. There are also more food restrictions with fixed retainers since they can easily break if in contact with hard foods.
There is no ideal retainer. They all work differently but ultimately have the same goal which is to maintain the ideal, final position of the teeth. If worn and handled as instructed by the orthodontist they allow patients to keep that beautiful smile they worked so hard to achieve.