Although retainers and night guards might look similar to the untrained eye, they are not the same thing and each type of mouth guard has its own unique purpose. Retainers are designed to help teeth stay in place while night guards are designed to protect teeth. People with bruxism (teeth grinding and clenching) need to wear night guards at night as a preventative measure. As you continue reading, we’ll look at the nuanced differences between the two. We’ll also answer many of the frequently asked questions about retainers and night guards.
Retainer vs Night Guard
What Is a Retainer and What Is It Used for?
Retainers are designed to keep your teeth properly aligned. Usually, people have retainers after they’ve had braces, Invisalign, or other orthodontic work that has shifted their teeth into an ideal alignment. The retainer keeps the teeth in their new location, and it’s typically made out of metal or plastic. When your teeth are newly moved to a new location in your mouth, they’re inclined to move back where they came from, so a retainer prevents that from happening and helps your teeth become comfortable and stable in their new location.
What Is a Night Guard and What Is It Used for?
Night guards are devices you place on your upper or lower teeth at night to protect your teeth and jaw from teeth clenching or grinding (otherwise known as bruxism). Depending on your needs and your level of teeth grinding, your night guard will be made of a softer, more flexible rubber or a harder plastic. While night guards look very similar to plastic retainers, their protective function is completely different from that of a retainer.
Can I Wear a Retainer as a Night Guard?
If you have a retainer made of hard plastic that fully covers your upper or lower teeth, it might provide some protection and relief for minor tooth grinding and clenching, but retainers are not designed to take the beating, your teeth put on them when you grind your teeth at night and therefore it would not be the best solution. Typically, retainers are very thin, as their job is simply to hold your teeth in place, not to protect them. Trying to wear a retainer as a night guard will eventually result in holes and uneven wear on the retainer for most people.
When I first developed bruxism, I was still wearing my retainers from my braces. This was many years ago, before online companies like Pro Teeth Guard existed, and I didn’t want to spend a lot of money on a night guard. I started wearing my retainers every single night, hoping they would provide protection to my teeth and relax my jaw muscles. While they did provide a little bit of protection, I still woke up with headaches and a sore jaw or sometimes tooth pain, and my continual grinding was starting to wear away at my retainer. The quick fix of the retainer was doing nothing to ease my symptoms of bruxism.
Once I started wearing a night dental guard every night, I realized just how little my retainers were doing to help with my clenching and grinding. The night dental guard did a much better job of providing protection and cushion, and I no longer wake up with headaches or a sore jaw, even though I still clench my front teeth at night.
Can I Wear a Night Guard as a Retainer?
If you already wear a retainer and now find out you need a night guard, you’ll be happy to know that because custom night guards are perfectly fitted for your teeth, they can function as an overnight retainer to keep your teeth in place. A very important caveat, though is that this is only true for hard, custom fit night guards. Soft night guards or over the counter “one size fits all” night guards won’t hold your teeth in place the way a retainer does.
One important thing to keep in mind as well is that you typically only wear a night guard on your upper teeth or bottom teeth, so if you need a retainer on your top and bottom teeth, you may still need a retainer for the teeth that don’t have a night guard.
If you have recently started wearing a retainer and also need a night guard, your dentist or orthodontist might recommend continuing to wear your retainer during the day while your teeth settle in. Over time, as your teeth become less inclined to shift, your night guard will do a good job of keeping them in place.
When Do I Need to Wear a Retainer or Night Guard?
After you’ve had braces or any other method of tooth alignment, your dentist or orthodontist will talk to you about your retainer options and what will be best for you. When you wear your retainer can vary widely; some retainers are permanently affixed to your teeth while others only need to be worn at night. If you have a removable retainer, you may wear it more often at first and then slowly wear it less over time.
Night guards, unsurprisingly, are worn at night. You’ll know that you need to start wearing a night guard when you start noticing the unpleasant symptoms of bruxism (lower jaw pain or chipped teeth, for example) or when your dentist notices the signs and tells you should start wearing a night guard. Once you know you have bruxism, it’s important to get a night guard as soon as possible so you can alleviate your symptoms and avoid damage to your teeth, such as chips or cracks. If left untreated, teeth grinding and clenching can also do damage to your temporomandibular joint (TMJ) and lead to TMJ disorders.
How Long Do I Need to Wear a Retainer or Night Guard?
In many cases, you’ll eventually be able to stop wearing your retainer once the bone and tissues surrounding your teeth stabilizes. If you stop wearing your retainer too soon, you risk your teeth shifting back to their original location, and then you’d have to start all over again with braces. If you currently wear a retainer but are looking into wearing a night guard, consult with your dentist or orthodontist to determine whether you can stop wearing your retainer or if a night guard can function as a retainer for you. If it has been more than a year since your braces were removed, it is likely you can stop. Some people wear their retainers on occasion even years after their braces were removed simply to ensure their teeth remain aligned.
As long as you continue to have bruxism, you’ll need to continue to wear a night guard to protect your teeth and improve your dental health. For most people, this means you’ll be wearing one for the rest of your life. You can, however, try to manage your bruxism naturally if you want to try to discontinue use of a night guard. If your bruxism is caused by stress, you might try relaxation methods such as yoga or deep breathing to stop grinding your teeth. If you do try to naturally stop, be sure to continue to wear your night guard until your dentist has confirmed that you have stopped grinding your teeth and it is safe to discontinue using a night guard.