What Is a Palate Expander? Uses, How It Works and More

Clinical Content Reviewed by Dr. Jay Khorsandi, DDS
Last Modified:

Table of Contents

  1. What is a Palate Expander?
  2. Conditions Treated
  3. How It Works
  4. Before, During & After
  5. Palate Expanders, Aligners or Braces?
  6. Frequently Asked Questions
  7. References

Palate expanders are orthodontic devices that take advantage of the bone growth process to reshape the structure of a person’s jaw. Expanders push against the inner edges of the palate to stimulate bone growth and gradually expand the width of the upper jaw. Eventually, the upper jaw better matches the size of the lower jaw.

Palate expanders can prevent issues such as teeth crowding, crossbite and impacted teeth. They may be mildly uncomfortable to wear but usually do not cause any major inconvenience.

During or after a palate expansion, recipients may need to wear braces or aligners to finish off the teeth alignment process.

What Is a Palate Expander?

A palate expander is an orthodontic appliance that treats various dental complications. Also called an orthodontic expander, or palatal expander, palate expanders gradually create more space in the upper jaw.

Orthodontists often used them to widen narrow palates and align the upper jaw and teeth in pre-adolescent children.

This treatment is most successful when it is completed before the child’s jaw finishes developing. However, there are instances where you can get the procedure done in your teenage and adulthood years.

Conditions a Palatal Expander Treats

Oral care specialists employ orthodontic expanders primarily to treat three situations that involve maxillary expansion: crowding, crossbite and impacted teeth.

Crowding occurs when there is not enough room in someone’s jaw for all of their teeth to erupt in the proper alignment. Because of crowing, teeth may come in crooked, rotated or overlapped with other teeth. This is a common issue faced by pre-teen children when their permanent teeth start growing.

Crossbite happens when the upper jaw is too narrow to fit properly over the lower one. One result is that back teeth in the upper jaw bite inside the lower teeth.

Impacted teeth occur when already-erupted teeth fail to leave room for the teeth that are still under the gums. By expanding the upper jaw, orthodontists can create enough space for the new teeth to erupt in place and without further complications.

How Does a Palate Expander Work?

Orthodontists can customize expanders to suit the varying medical needs of their patients. The most common customizations for expanders are:

  • Rapid Palate Expander (RPE)

  • Removable Palatal Expander

  • Implant-Supported Expansion

  • Surgically-Assisted Palatal Expansion

An RPE is placed on the upper jaw in order to fix crossbite, narrow palates, and crowding. It is held in place by metal clasps that fit over several of the patient’s back teeth. In the middle of the device, there is a screw you can slowly turn to create tension between the two sides. This gradual force widens the jaw by about 0.5 mm per day.

These devices look a lot like acrylic retainers but are made of chrome. They apply light force to the teeth and jawbone the same way that a retainer would. These palate expanders are mainly used when the patient only needs minor adjusting in the maxilla or upper jaw.

Implant-supported expanders are commonly used in mature adolescents where relatively heavier force is required to widen an almost fully developed jaw. The expansion treatment includes various implants that apply force to the maxillary bone and not the teeth.

After puberty, the jaw is fully developed and making alterations to it becomes difficult. In these cases, orthodontists insert the expander surgically into the palate bone. This allows the expander to hold the bone in a wider shape during the healing process, eventually resulting in a permanently widened palate.

What to Expect Before, During and After a Palatal Insertion

Before your expander is inserted, your orthodontist will explain what the procedure involves and why it is being done. At this stage, you should learn how long the expander will be in place and what the recommended course of treatment will be once your expansion is complete.

Similar to braces, palate expanders take some time to get used to. For the first few days after the insertion, you’ll likely be very aware of the expander’s presence when you speak, swallow, and chew. Additionally, you’ll notice your tongue frequently resting against the expander. This is normal because the tongue typically rests on the palate of the upper jaw.

It may take up to a week to get used to the foreign appliance. You can ease into the experience by eating soft and easy-to-swallow foods like scrambled eggs, smoothies, yogurt, and tofu. Avoid chewy and sticky foods like hard candies, chewing gum, apples, steak, and taffy. These items will place unnecessary pressure on your sensitive teeth and may become stuck in the appliance.

Do You Need Palate Expanders, Aligners or Braces?

While palate expanders don’t necessarily have to be used with metal braces, it is common for patients to be treated with both at the same time. You may also need to wear braces or clear teeth aligners after your palate expansion is complete. Ask your orthodontist about your dental problems and what course of treatment they recommend to address those issues.

Frequently Asked Questions

Wearing a palate expander is not painful. While you may experience some initial pressure, that feeling should go away in a few minutes. Some surgically implanted and implant-supported expanders may cause some discomfort in the first few days after fitting.

For the most part, you can eat normally while wearing a palate expander. However, you should cut your food into small pieces and ask your orthodontist what foods to avoid.

Palate expanders work best when children are between 5 and 16 years old. However, the appliance can be fitted to patients of any age.

Palate expanders are cleaned by brushing around them. For best results, you should brush your teeth and appliance after each meal. You can also use an antimicrobial mouthwash to remove bacteria and food particles stuck under the expander.

Disclaimer: This article is intended to promote understanding of and knowledge about general oral health topics. It is not intended to serve as dental or other professional health advice and is not intended to be used for diagnosis or treatment of any condition or symptom. You should consult a dentist or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment.