Dr. Eric Leber
05/10/2017

Rapid Palatal Expander

Sometimes we see a patient whose upper jaw, or arch, is more narrow than his lower one. This condition causes the upper molars and premolars to fit slightly inside the lower ones. Over time, the teeth can wear into an uncomfortable bite. You're probably wondering just how that can be corrected. Well let me tell you all about it.

When the upper arch is too narrow there is a way to widen it. We use an appliance called a rapid palatal expander, or RPE for short. Our skulls are made of all sorts of 'plates' that join together like a jigsaw puzzle. These joints are called sutures. When we are young, the sutures are held together with cartilage allowing them to expand as we grow. We have one of those sutures in the palate of our mouths. If you rub your tongue on the roof of your mouth you can feel the slight ridge of it. (Go on, you know you want to!)

When we need to help the upper arch to widen a bit quicker to keep up with the lower arch we use the RPE. This device is made up of two metal bands, which have been fitted to the upper molar teeth, and are attached to a screw. The appliance is glued to the teeth and the screw is turned about a quarter millimeter once or twice a day. This opening of the screw puts pressure on the suture to stretch the cartilage open. When the upper arch is expanded a little past the optimal bite relationship we hold everything steady for about six months to allow the cartilage to fill in. Our patients are a little surprised by the rather large gap they get between their front teeth. Fortunately, teeth like to touch each other so they drift back together a little which makes the gap far less noticeable.

Widening with a palatal expander has to be done while the cartilage is still soft and pliable. It works best on children aged five to fifteen. By around age sixteen the head is finishing its growth stage and the cartilage starts to harden into bone.

You may think this sounds pretty painful but it really isn't. Most of our patients tell us they feel a little pressure and tingling in their noses and cheeks for a few minutes after the screw has been turned. This happens mostly in the first week. Once the cartilage relaxes it opens more easily. We've found that turning the screw right after dinner works well. I, personally, like to add in a cold treat like ice cream or a popsicle for extra comfort.

Now, about turning that screw... who does that? The idea of coming into the office everyday probably isn't workable. The easiest solution is for us to show you how to do it yourself. We promise to walk you through the procedure until you're comfortable. Your first turn alone might be a little scary but you'll be a pro in no time!


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