What is a palatal expander?
A palatal expander is a dental appliance that is temporarily cemented in the mouth for the purpose of widening the upper dental arch. It can be bonded to all the surfaces of the back teeth or it can be held in place by metal bands cemented around some of the back teeth. Most expanders have a screw device connecting the right and left side of the mouth that must be turned by the patient (or their guardian) in order to be activated.
How do expanders work?
This appliance takes advantage of a patient’s upper jaw growth. Our upper and lower jaws are actually two separate bones that fuse together at the midline of our body. Lower jaws fuse together at a very young age, and thus it can’t be expanded without surgery. Upper jaws fuse around age 12-13 so children around this age and younger are able to actually widen their jaws! This orthopedic effect is a permanent correction in growth, which is pretty amazing! The expander works with the body’s active growth by gently and incrementally pulling apart the bones of the upper jaw. Then bone naturally fills in the space between. The upper jaw is slowly expanded using a key that turns the screw that rests below the center of the palate.
Who is a candidate for an expander?
Ages 7-12 are the ideal time for palatal expansion because a) the permanent first molars will be present in the mouth (they are good anchors for the appliance) and b) This is the peak of growth of the upper jaw, which is still able to be redirected. Palatal expansion falls under the umbrella of “Dentofacial Orthopedics”, which orthodontists are certified experts in! It’s important to have your child evaluated by an orthodontist for the first time around age 7, in case growth modification is needed to correct a skeletal, facial, or bite abnormality.