Palate Expander: What It Is, How It Works, & More!

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If you have recently learned that your child needs orthodontic treatment, you are definitely not alone. Of course, for many, the first thing that comes to mind when they think of orthodontics is braces. But there are many different types of orthodontic appliances that can be used to improve the appearance and function of a child’s teeth and bite.

One appliance you may hear suggested by your child’s orthodontist is a palate expander, sometimes also called a palatal expander. This is a common tool used in the first phase of orthodontic treatment for children as young as 6 years of age. This process can sound unnerving to both child and parent, especially if you are not very familiar with this appliance.

To help with that, in this article we’ve broken down exactly what a palate expander is as well as answered many common questions about this orthodontic appliance.


What is a Palate Expander?

This orthodontic device is used to gently widen the upper jaw to enlarge the mouth and create more room for the teeth. This treatment is most often used in younger patients, especially those under the age of 16. This is because, at younger ages, the hard palate (the roof of the mouth) is still growing so it is still flexible and not fully fused.

Palate expanders are extremely effective in helping to treat certain issues early on and prevent bigger problems down the road. They are most commonly used to create more space for adult teeth to come in properly, treat a crossbite, or address impacted teeth. This appliance is often used before treatment with traditional braces (or Damon braces) is started. But, in some cases, it may be the only treatment the child needs.

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Source: Healthline

How Do Palate Expanders Work Exactly?

A palate expander is made up of two metal side pieces that are connected in the middle by a screw. First, the appliance will be custom-made for your child. It will then be cemented to several of the upper molar teeth to hold it in place. So, it is not removable and will usually be in place for 6 – 9 months. 

The palate expander works by using a special key to turn the middle screw. When this is done, it slightly expands the metal pieces to apply gentle pressure that pushes the palatal bones apart. This is done periodically over a specified time until the desired expansion is reached. 

Turning the key is usually handled by the parent to ensure it is done properly. You will receive specific instructions on exactly how to do this and how often. It will usually need to be turned once or twice a day.

Once the desired expansion is reached, the palate expander will usually need to stay in place for a couple of months longer to allow the palate to properly stabilize and bone to sufficiently form in the gap.


What to Expect from a Palate Expander?

Initially, the palate expander may feel awkward and heavy in your child’s mouth, especially when they are talking or eating. It is something new and different in their mouth, so it will take a little time to get used to.

You may notice some lisping or slight drooling as they become accustomed to the appliance. As the palate starts to expand, some slight gaps may appear between teeth (often between the front teeth). But braces will be used to correct these once the palate is properly expanded.


Do Palate Expanders Hurt?

As with any orthodontic appliance, there will be some minor discomfort at first, but there will not be any kind of excruciating pain. Palate expander pain will be minimal and will usually be felt in the jaw and sometimes present as pressure below the eyes or at the top of the nose.

Any pain or pressure most often occurs shortly after the key is used to widen the expander and will go away after a day or two. An over-the-counter pain reliever can be used to help treat the pain.

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How to Care for a Palate Expander Properly

It is extremely important that your child properly cleans and takes care of their teeth and gums while the palate expander is in place. This will not only prevent tooth decay but also prevent the gums from becoming inflamed and causing problems around the metal pieces of the expander.

Though it may take a little extra time because of where it is positioned, the appliance itself should be relatively easy to take care of:

  • The expander should be thoroughly cleaned several times per day, specifically after eating. A mouth rinse, liquid syringe, or Waterpik is effective at helping to clear food or other debris away.
  • Your child should avoid foods or candies that could loosen or bend the expander. This includes things like nuts, popcorn, sticky foods, taffy, caramels, gummy candy, etc.
  • Your child should not chew on ice or other hard objects like pencils or pens.


What Are The Alternatives to a Palate Expander For Adults?

As mentioned above, a palate expander is generally reserved for use in children whose bones are not fully fused. But, there are a couple of alternatives for adults who may be dealing with teeth crowding or a crossbite. Besides pulling teeth, there are two main adult orthodontic treatment options to create more room or correct a bite: 

  • In some cases, if only minimal movement is needed, a removable palate expander can be effective at achieving the desired result for adults. (These are not suggested for use in younger patients who may have difficulty with compliance.) 
  • The other option, for more severe cases, is a combination of surgical intervention and treatment with braces. In this case, the upper jaw bone would be intentionally broken to create movable parts that could then be shifted into the desired place with a custom appliance and braces.


How Do I Know If My Child Needs a Palate Expander?

In many cases, it may not be readily visible that your child needs a palate expander. This determination is made after a dental/orthodontic professional evaluates your child. This is why it is important that children first see an orthodontist by age 7. This will allow the opportunity for early intervention, if needed, to prevent bigger, and more costly problems in the future.

Check out our article for more info on when a child should see an orthodontist, as well as our article on how to help them prepare for their first visit.


Cook & Gutsche Orthodontics Can Help Give Your Child a Beautiful & Functional Smile 

A palate expander is an extremely common and effective tool used by orthodontists to intervene early in the development of your child’s mouth and help them achieve a straight and functional smile. By understanding exactly what this appliance is and how it works, you can help your child see how beneficial it can be for them and reduce any fear they may have.  

If you have questions about a palate expander or are looking for a compassionate and experienced orthodontist to evaluate your child for treatment, we can help! Contact our team here at Cook & Gutsche Orthodontics with any questions you or your child may have or to make an appointment.