Mouthguards vs. retainers — when do you need them?

If you’ve not used a mouthguard or had a retainer before, they may seem interchangeable. In actuality, they are designed for two different things. A retainer is designed to help teeth stay in place. A mouthguard or night guard is designed to protect teeth, primarily for people who grind their teeth or frequently clench their teeth at night.

People can use both a retainer and a mouthguard at the same time, alternating nights when they wear one versus the other if there are multiple issues your orthodontist is trying to fix. Certain mouthguards can also be used if a person has braces to help protect their teeth during physical activity, like playing football or hockey.

girl wearing retainer
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What are retainers?

Retainers can be both removable or cemented into place. Removable retainers are usually made of a transparent, plastic-like material, but they can also be metal. Your orthodontist will help you decide which retainer is best for your particular case.

Why wear one?

Their role is to keep your teeth in place after you have orthodontic treatment, like braces, by preventing them from moving back into their original position (which can take up to a year). It’s important to wear your retainer to help prevent shifting, which will undo any work you’ve had done to make your teeth straight. Most dentists will recommend you wear your retainer full-time for the first four to six months after work has been done (i.e., braces removed) and then worn at night indefinitely to keep your teeth in alignment.

Types of retainers

There are three primary types of retainers. The Hawley retainer is made of metal and acrylic and is adjustable so that your orthodontist can tweak it over time based on how your teeth are moving. The Essix retainer is made of clear plastic (and looks like Invisalign aligners), which is why people like them. Though they are less noticeable, they will break down more over time and need to be replaced. Permanent retainers are glued to the back of your teeth, so they can’t be seen by others, but you may find it more difficult to floss.

man wearing mouthguard
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What are mouthguards?

Mouthguards, also known as nocturnal bite plates or occlusal guards, are devices used to protect your teeth while you sleep or play sports. They are made from acrylic, a clear, hard plastic material, and a customized mouthguard will be fit by your dentist or orthodontist.

Why wear one?

Mouthguards or night guards help prevent grinding or clenching while you sleep. Night guards can also be used to help with snoring and relieve obstructive sleep apnea. They help protect your teeth from damage or wear over time, especially if you grind your teeth.

Constant grinding and clenching can result in broken teeth, jaw damage, and a painful condition known as temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorder. They can also help prevent headaches, reduce stress, and reduce jaw aches that often occur if you do grind or clench your teeth by providing a protective layer to help minimize damage.

Types of mouthguards

Boil and bite mouth protectors can be bought at most sporting goods stores. This mouthguard is made from thermoplastic material and is placed in hot water to soften, then placed in your mouth. Once in your mouth, it is shaped around the teeth using your finger and tongue to apply pressure. This type of mouthguard is typically worn for playing sports.

Customized mouthguards are individually designed by your dentist by making an impression of your teeth and molded over the model. They are more expensive but provide the most comfort and protection and should be used if you suffer from grinding, clenching, or other serious conditions.

While retainers and mouthguards are used for different purposes, it’s critical that both be worn exactly as your dentist recommends. If not, you could be undoing all the work to get your smile in its current, perfect position. You’ll also want to make sure you keep regular dental visits in case your mouthguard or retainer needs adjusting over time.

It’s common to need both appliances to keep your teeth in place and to help with damage caused by clenching and grinding your teeth. Make sure you are clear on which to wear at what times to ensure you are getting the most out of your treatment plan.

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