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Rapid Palatal Expanders

Updated on January 27, 2017

I wouldn't guess that many people have firsthand experience with the palatal expander, but most people probably know someone who knew someone who had one. If you didn't, now you do -- I had one. For two (long, long) years. What exactly is this thing? Oh, if you have a flair for the dramatic, you might say it's something akin to a modern day torture device. If you're less prone to hysterics, you might simply describe it as a fugly contraption your orthodontist sticks in your mouth and leaves there for a specified period of time, during which you will be counting the seconds down to its removal. Sounds like a party, eh?

What Does The Palatal Expander Do?

In the simplest terms possible (and the nicest), this bit of joy widens your upper palate. Mine was similar to the one in that photo. If you look closely, you'll see a hole in the center. That would be a key-hole. No joke. Mom or Dad sticks the key into that hole every night (or as often as prescribed) and turns it about a few times. Sounds simple enough, but it hurts like a mother. And rightly so!

Why Is It Used?

The reasons will vary from person to person. From kid to kid, really, as these are usually used on prepubescents. I believe I was about 10 when I had mine, and it was in there because I have a very, very tiny mouth, but normal-sized teeth. Made for a quite a mess, but before I could use braces, I had to have room made for the wonkey teeth. And, in my case, I had to have some teeth pulled, because it was thought that if I didn't, my wisdom teeth might be a problem in the future. Other kids may need it due to a cross bite, breathing problems, or other issues. All depends on the individual.

What's It Like Once It's In?

It's been 20 years since mine was in, so technology may have improved since then. But I'll tell you how it was in my case, cos I remember it like it was yesterday.

  • It hurt going in, and it hurt quite badly every time my mother turned the key. Maybe she did it too fast or too hard, I dunno. All I can tell you is that I still remember the pain, which primarily manifested as headaches and jaw aches. The rest of the time it was more like a dull ache that I could ignore most of the time.

  • It was impossible to eat like a normal person. I preferred soft foods, for obvious reasons, as my teeth ached a lot. But even then, food would get stuck between the expander and the roof of my mouth. It was pretty nasty, and pretty annoying trying to clean it out.

  • I developed an instant lisp. And while I've read that you're supposed to overcome the speech issues within a few days, I must have been particularly speech-challenged, as I was unable to speak normally until a few days before the took it out -- TWO YEARS LATER.

  • I had way too much saliva going on for those two years.

How Long Do They Stay In?

Mine was in for two years. Others may have it for less time, or perhaps even more.

Are They Worth It?

To be honest, I'd have to say yes. I hated having that stupid thing in my mouth, but it changed the shape of my face for the better and, without it, my teeth would be quite wonky today, cos I wouldn't have been able to get braces. The pain was annoying, but it wasn't unbearable. If you are a parent, I'd advise you to be as gentle as you can when turning the key -- the pain really can be bad enough to make one cry. The rest of the time, however, it shouldn't be that bad.

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