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How Do Clear Aligners Work?

By Ashley Hinson
Straightening teeth with clear dental aligners is a discreet way to align teeth without braces, but how do clear aligners work?

Clear aligners gradually move misaligned teeth just like braces doexcept they’re removable and more convenient. Clear dental aligners are also a less noticeable way to straighten teeth in comparison to traditional braces. For this reason, they’ve become an increasingly popular teeth straightening option. 

How Clear Teeth Aligners Work

So, how do clear aligners work? If you choose to straighten your teeth with dental aligners, your dentist, orthodontist, or direct-to-consumer aligner provider will first scan your teeth. This scan will then be used to design your custom dental aligners. 

If needed, your dentist or orthodontist may also fit small, clear attachments on your teeth to connect with the aligners. This gives the clear aligners extra strength to move your teeth into the desired place. 

“Think about if you see someone with braces and metal brackets. Attachments function just like the brackets. Traditional braces have metal brackets, and clear aligners have tooth-colored attachments. Specific aligners are attached on specific teeth to help the trays engage onto the teeth and help move them in the direction and position we ultimately want,” Andrew Kitzmiller, DDS, of CinciSmiles, tells WebMD Connect to Care. 

Over time, patients are given a series of trays to gradually move the teeth. Each tray usually lasts a week or two. You should wear your trays for 22-24 hours a day and only remove them to eat and drink, according to the American Association of Orthodontists. 

“Each tray works on moving the teeth a couple of millimeters, and it typically takes 6 to 12 months. It’s typically a series of 25 trays, so for 25 weeks in treatment, and [with] each tray, you see the tooth move just a tiny bit as it gets in the ideal position,” Kitzmiller says.

In the past, clear aligners used to only work for milder cases of teeth crowding. While there are some conditions that may require oral surgery, such as protrusion or over-rotated teeth, clear aligners can fix many cases of misaligned teeth. 

“It started out for people who had more mild or moderate crowding, or someone who might have had braces when they were a teen and a tooth moved back a bit. Now, with some of the technology and more physics that goes into these attachments with the clear aligners, there are ways to alter them…It’s just like you would with regular braces.”

After clear aligners, patients should wear a retainer to prevent the teeth from shifting back into their original location. A retainer is an important part of any teeth straightening treatment.

“It’s just like regular braces. Teeth are dynamic. Whether you do braces or not, teeth are a living part of our body. That’s why it's so important to get a retainer or get a lingual bar on your teeth to [keep] them from moving,” Kitzmiller says. 

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