How Does a Palatal Expander Work?

One sign of a truly beautiful smile is teeth that are evenly spaced as well as healthy – but for some of us, the crowding of our teeth is a very real problem. Noticeable from a young age, teeth crowding is what happens when teeth become twisted and crooked due to there not being enough space along the jaw for teeth to grow in straight. Is there anything you can do to correct the shape of your jaw? At Rollins & Peterson Orthodontics in Mesa, AZ we are experts in all types of orthodontic care, including how to use palatal expanders to create perfect smiles.

How Does a Palatal Expander Work?

The purpose of a palatal expander is to do exactly what it sounds like – expand the palate to be wider. The palate refers to the upper jaw, specifically the roof of the mouth, which can sometimes be too narrow and lead to the eruption of crooked, overcrowded teeth. An expander works by slowly widening the shape of the jaw to realign teeth and give permanent teeth room to grow without error.

As an orthodontic treatment, an expander is a non-surgical and non-invasive treatment that very easily – and permanently – alters the shape of the upper jaw to match the lower jaw. This is done within a few steps, including:

Step One: Installation

An expander is a device that must be installed into the mouth in order to work. The installation generally means fitting the rack-like device onto the roof of the mouth by binding its legs to the molars. Some expanders can be removed at home, but it’s more common to have expanders temporarily installed until your orthodontist feels that your palate has been expanded enough.

Step Two: Key and Turn

Part of operating an expander is manually turning the expander a few times at home at certain intervals, such as daily or a few times a week. Expanders each come with a specific key that snaps into place and enables the turning of the expander, which gradually widens the roof of the mouth.

Turning an expander usually requires the use of another person. While you are lying down flat on your back with your head tilted backward, usually off the edge of a bed, someone else will use the key to give the expander a few terms. If you do not have another person to turn the expander for you at home, you may need to schedule appointments to have the expander turned at our office.

Step Three: Final Examination

After several weeks of using the expander, the progress of the device will be assessed to see if the expander has widened your upper jaw enough. Sometimes you may be instructed to continue using the expander, while other times you may be instructed to keep the expander in for a while longer to ensure your newly-expanded jaw will remain in place. After your orthodontist is satisfied that your jaw has widened enough, the expander will be removed.

Frequently Asked Questions About Palatal Expanders

1. Why Are They Used?

Because an expander is used to widen the natural shape of the upper jaw to create more room for teeth, there are actually a few reasons why using an expander might be necessary. Some of these reasons include:

Correct Crossbite

The most common need for an expander is if the patient has a crossbite. A crossbite is the misalignment of the upper and lower jaws, which causes the molars to have an uneven mite that may make it more difficult to eat. Crossbites are incredibly common, with many people being able to live with minor crossbites without a problem. However, if you have a more pronounced crossbite, an expander is likely to be your first orthodontic treatment.

Relieve Impacted Teeth

Impacted teeth are teeth that cannot grow in or “erupt” because they are being blocked by another existing tooth. Impacted teeth are usually molars or the teeth at the back of the mouth. Some impacted teeth can leave room for infection, abscesses, or pain in the jaws. Expanders create more space in the jaw so impacted teeth have room to erupt.

Straighten Teeth

Expanders are also used to straighten teeth, particularly teeth that have become crooked from overcrowding. Straightening the teeth can refer to correcting the placement of teeth that have already grown in or ensuring that new teeth will grow in straight. Having straight teeth is one of the most asked-about issues in orthodontics.

2. How Long Do You Wear Them?

When it comes to wearing expanders, the length of time they are worn varies from person to person. While some people may only need to wear an expander for a few weeks, others may have to wear an expander for several months to achieve ideal results. You may also have to wear expanders longer to make sure the jaw stays in place.

Minor Realignment

For those who need minor realignment, it’s common to use an expander for about 6 weeks to correct a crossbite or allow room for impacted teeth to grow into place safely.

Major Realignment

For those who need major realignment, specifically, those who have a severe crossbite that interferes with eating, it may be a few months before the expander is removed. Expanders used to correct major alignment issues may wear expanders for 3 to 6 months or longer.

3. Can Adults Have Them?

Generally speaking, expanders are used most often on children under the age of 13, which is when a majority of adult teeth are already growing into place. However, there are times when an expander can be used on an adult, and it is perfectly possible to install an expander into adult mouths prior to the installation of adult braces.

Is There a Best Age to Use Expanders?

Yes. Expanders are ideally used to correct the width of the palate during childhood because the jaw itself is more malleable and can more easily – and painlessly – be expanded. Because expanders may help with correcting the eruption of impacted teeth, it’s usually best to use one before wisdom teeth come in.

4. Will You Need Braces After?

Depending on your orthodontic needs, you may or may not require braces after wearing an expander. This is because braces correct the alignment of teeth that are already grown into place, which may not be necessary if an expander creates more space between teeth so teeth can straighten themselves.

Why Expanders Come Before Braces

While not all people who use expanders also use braces, it’s a common practice to use an expander before braces as a two-step method to ensure that all teeth can be correctly aligned without issue. For many people, creating space between teeth with an expander on the palate may not be enough to correct the alignment of other teeth, especially the front teeth.

5. Do They Hurt?

While the installation of an expander will not hurt, you can expect some minor discomfort from the expander each time the key is turned to widen the jaw. For the majority of people, including children, this discomfort fades within minutes and is somewhat like the ache in your jaw when you open your mouth too wide. Using an expander is not painful.

6. How Do You Know It’s Working?

There are a couple of ways to know if an expander is working. For one, you will feel the stretch of your upper jaw each time the key is turned in the expander, which is how you know you’ve given the correct number of turns, which stretch the jaw by millimeters at a time. You can also tell if the expander is working by paying attention to the alignment of your visible teeth, which may begin to shift by themselves once there is more room in the mouth.

7. Will It Change the Shape of Your Face?

Yes, using an expander will moderately change the shape of your face. Because your upper jaw is connected to the bones in your mid-face, specifically your cheekbones, you may notice that your middle face will have a subtly more square shape by the time you are finished using the expander. Any changes to your face shape are not drastic and may even help improve your overall appearance by balancing out your lower and upper jaws.

8. Will You Talk Differently With an Expander?

After your expander has been installed, there will be a short period of time when you will talk differently. Because expanders are placed at the top of the palate and the palate is used by the tongue to create certain speech sounds, an expander may mean that some speech sounds have a slight lisp. Any speech changes that occur as a result of the expander will fade once your tongue becomes acclimated to the shape of the expander. For most people, speech changes last less than 1 week.

9. Will It Be Harder to Eat?

Immediately following the installation of your expander and after the expander keys have been turned, you may notice that it may be more difficult to eat crunchy foods. This is normal and will reflect some of the dietary restrictions that are common for people who wear braces. You will be given directions to eat soft foods, avoid hard candies, and not chew sticky foods, such as taffy or gum, that may be caught up in the expander.

10. How Do You Clean Expanders?

Everyday cleaning of your expander can be done at home when you brush your teeth or use mouthwash. You will be instructed to make sure no food is caught between the expander and the roof of the mouth and to brush and floss as usual. At your check-up appointments, we will do a more thorough cleaning of the expander, especially in the area where the expander key is inserted.

11. Are You a Good Candidate?

Those who are eligible for this orthodontic treatment are patients who have an upper jaw that is too narrow, which can create many different orthodontic obstacles to straight teeth. Although it’s more common for expanders for the palate to be used on children, some teenagers and adults may also need to use this device. You may be a good candidate for treatment if you have:

  • Crossbite
  • Overcrowded teeth
  • Impacted teeth
  • Crooked teeth
  • Difficulty eating


Start Your Journey to the Perfect Smile With a Palatal Expander

Your journey to a perfect smile may begin with expanding your upper palate to give your teeth more room to grow in straight and be more easily realigned. If you have a crossbite or other issues related to a too-narrow upper jaw, using a palatal expander might be right for you. Contact Rollins & Peterson Orthodontics in Mesa, AZ to schedule your initial consultation.