Orthodontic Appliances For Children - Understanding Palatal Expanders

If your child has crooked or crowded teeth in the mouth and they want a straight smile, then your orthodontist will likely identify teeth that can be extracted to create space for the essential teeth. However, this will sometimes not be enough to make room for all the teeth. If the dental professional feels that space is extremely limited, then your son or daughter may be fitted with a palatal expander. Before the expander is placed, make sure you understand what the device is and how it can help your child.

What Is a Palatal Expander?

Palatial expanders are tools that help orthodontists with maxillary expansion. Maxillary expansion is the process of widening the palate and upper jaw. This area of the mouth is called the maxilla. As your child grows, the upper jaw widens on either side of the mouth. The left and right sides of the jaw meet in the middle of the head along the center ridge of the palate. The separate parts of the jaw bond in this area of the mouth and solidify around the time your child reaches puberty. If your child's mouth is small, then the upper bones of the jaw may not have moved out far enough on their own. To help increase the width of the upper maxilla, the orthodontist will place a device called a palatal expander across the upper palate.

The palatal expander is a metal device that sits against the roof of your child's mouth. The expander will have four prongs that jut out from the sides and attach to brackets placed on the teeth. A small opening will sit in the middle of the expander. The opening will accept a small key that must be turned once or twice a day. When the key is turned, the expander will widen a small amount and place pressure on the teeth. This forces the jaw to expand.

Is The Device Painful?

Jaw expansion sounds like an extremely painful process, and the expansion would likely be quite painful as an adult. However, the palatal expander does not create a great deal of pain when used by a child. The bone ridge at the palate will still be quite soft. The soft area opens a small amount when pressure is placed and the opening fills in with new bone cells. Since the expander is continually twisted, the bone does not have the ability to solidify completely. New bone cells continue to form in the palate ridge until the expander stops moving. When it stops, the bone in the area will become dense, thick, and hard.

The very slow movement of the expander is what helps to reduce your child's discomfort. This is why the orthodontist will ask you to move the key only a millimeter or two a day. If a single turn causes pain, then you can move the expander two or three times a day. Moving the device smaller amounts will place far less stress on the jaw. 

When Can The Expander Be Placed?

Palatal expanders are typically placed after the jaw has grown a significant amount. This means that the expander will likely be set in the mouth close to when your child will begin going through puberty. You can expect the orthodontist to secure the appliance around the age of 11 or 12. Once the expander is set, it will stay in the mouth between six and nine months, depending on how much space is needed.

When the jaw starts to move, you may see some space opening up between your child's front teeth. This is normal and not a concern. This opening forms as space becomes available and the teeth start to shift a bit. You should not notice many other changes though, except for a slight widening of your child's face. 

Talk with an orthodontist for more information or learn more here.