Gaps between teeth come in many shapes and sizes. Whether you have gapped teeth or extraction gaps you’re planning to close, you’re probably wondering how it’s done. How exactly do braces close spaces, and how long does it take?
Braces close gaps between teeth through the use of powerchains, closed coils, archwire loops and rubber bands. All these accessories apply constant tension to the brackets, pulling teeth back or close together, depending on what your orthodontist is looking to achieve.
As for how long it takes, it depends. Typically, we don’t bond braces and start pulling on teeth straight away. Your teeth will need to go through an adjustment phase. In this article, I’m going to cover space closure techniques, average timelines, and how to make the entire process faster and smoother.
Disclaimer: I’m a licensed orthodontist on a quest to make information on dental braces accessible and easy to understand. However, I’m not YOUR doctor, so please check with your orthodontist before doing anything to your braces, and don’t be afraid to ask them any questions you might have.
How do braces close diastemas and small gaps?
The medical terms to describe gaps between front teeth are diastema and trema. Diastema for your central gap, and trema for the front lateral gaps. Gapped teeth are often hereditary, and closing these spaces is pretty straightforward if your bite is correct.
So here’s what to expect:
An aligning and leveling phase. After getting braces, you’ll need to go through at least 4-6 months of aligning and leveling. Your teeth need to be perfectly straight before moving on.
During this phase, new gaps may open up – don’t panic, the arches are getting wider and it’s perfectly normal to see this. Read this article that goes into greater detail.
A space closure phase. This is where the rubber meets the road. Your orthodontist will switch to a bigger archwire and will start applying more force on your teeth. You’ll typically get powerchains – connected elastic rings that stretch and cause the gaps to close. Your doctor may also ask you to wear rubber bands at this stage.
A retention phase. Your teeth will need a period of rest after space closure. During this time, your orthodontist will tie your brackets together with a metal ligature, so your teeth don’t drift apart and reopen those gaps.
When the braces come off, you’ll get a retainer, either fixed or removable (or both) that you need to wear diligently. Gaps, especially large diastemas, have a high chance of relapsing and partially reopening over time.
The time it takes to close gaps: 6 to 18 months depending on the diastema size and underlying occlusion problems. If it seems like a lot, know that going slow is much more stable in the long run. You could save some time with clear aligners, but it’s essentially the same process.
How do braces close extraction gaps?
Having a tooth extracted, whether it’s because of decay or for orthodontic purposes is never an easy experience. Neither is having a gap in your mouth for so long. Extractions typically open up 7-8mm of space or more, so expect quite a large gap.
It takes a long time to close extraction gaps, especially if we’re dealing with old extraction sites where the bone is narrow and thin. Here’s the summary of the steps:
Aligning phase. You’ll start off the same way as most treatments start. We have to get those teeth straight so bigger wires can fit into the brackets without snapping them off. Your teeth will either be extracted at this point, or you’ll have them extracted with your braces on.
Leveling phase. No, we’re still not closing those gaps yet, we need to get the teeth nice and level. Your wires need to be as straight as train tracks before proceeding to space closure.
- Important: At this point, many patients get frustrated. They say, ‘It’s been a year, and my ortho still hasn’t started closing my gaps’. While I understand that having those visible extraction sites is annoying, your doctor probably knows what they’re doing, so trust the process.
Space closure phase. It’s finally time to close those extraction gaps. We do so by using either powerchains or closed coils, depending on the preference. Most often, you’ll get asked to wear rubber bands to speed up the process. Some orthodontists bend loops in the archwire that close gaps as well.
If you’re missing premolars or molars, the space closure phase can take a year or more. While it’s true that teeth move at an average rate of 1mm/month, we often hit roadblocks and it can take much longer.
Retention phase. Keeping extraction sites closed long-term is challenging as they have a tendency to open up slightly – enough for some pesky food to get in and bother you during meals. That’s why the retention phase with braces on for a minimum of 3 months is so important.
When your braces come off, you’ll get retainers just like with any other orthodontic treatment. Wear them religiously for the first year if you’ve had gaps. You can slack off later, but for now, know that the gums take years to reorganize their tissue, and they’re at fault for reopening your gaps. Wearing retainers every day is the best way to prevent relapse.
The time it takes to close extraction gaps: 24 months. This is the average – it could be 18 months, it could be 36. I suggest hoping for the best and preparing for the worst. Space closure is slow and tedious at times, and there’s almost nothing you or your orthodontist can do differently, although we do have some tricks to speed things up.
How can you speed things up?
While there’s not one accessory or one trick that can speed up tooth movement, there are a few things that you, as a patient can do to ensure those gaps close smoothly:
- Don’t miss any appointments. If you can, don’t let more than 6 weeks go by in between your appointments. 4 weeks is the optimal time to reactivate elastic chains, and going in any sooner won’t change things much. Obviously, your orthodontist will set the time between appointments, so try not to skip them.
- Don’t break brackets. Orthodontists often need to downgrade to smaller wires because of broken brackets, which means interrupting space closure.
- Don’t double down on rubber bands. Some patients think they can trick biology by applying twice the amount of tension their doctors recommended. Don’t play around with rubber bands, they’re powerful and can seriously hinder your results.
- Do have patience. Some gaps are just really stubborn and can put a dent in our plans. But eventually, things will get moving again. It’s best not to obsess about it and just accept that you’re still in braces.
What about stubborn gaps?
Some gaps are harder to close, especially the last millimeter. It’s super-frustrating to get stuck more than halfway through treatment, but it happens to all of us. Here’s what orthodontists can do to get things moving again:
- Take an X-Ray to make sure the root pathway is clear. Sometimes, the roots touch each other and the teeth don’t. In this case, your ortho will need to adjust bracket positioning. Other times, the X-ray may reveal a small mass, like an odontoma, or a root fragment left from the extraction – but it’s best to spot these before treatment.
- Check for occlusal interferences. When orthos bond brackets at the incorrect height, those teeth can touch the opposing arch first when you bite down. This is called occlusal interference, and the bite locks this specific tooth in, so it can no longer move to close the gap.
- Apply light forces and switch things up. When doctors get greedy and try to close too much of the gap too fast, teeth can get stuck, as the bone can’t handle remodeling at that rate. Slowing down is a good idea sometimes.
- Refer to a surgeon for corticotomy. Old bone isn’t as responsive when we attempt to move teeth through it. Osteotomy is a procedure that involves carving the tough cortical bone slightly so that it boosts bone resorption and teeth can move through it. This can speed up things considerably, but it’s a separate costly procedure.
- Check for tartar/calculus. Aside from creating an inflammatory response in your gums, tartar or calculus can hinder your space closure by blocking teeth from coming together. This is especially true for front gaps. Orthodontists often run a dental probe underneath the gums to check for hidden calculus.
- Use bonding as a last resort. If some gaps just won’t close, especially diastemas, your doctor can build up the incisors so they touch each other. This works great on smaller teeth and is a great example of how orthodontics and dentistry can work together to shorten treatment time and create the best smile possible.
Closing gaps can either be fast and easy or incredibly hard and frustrating, depending on your genetics and luck. Arm yourself with patience and ask for reassurance from your orthodontist. If you’ve had your braces on for more than 2 years and not much has changed, it’s time to seek a second opinion. Good luck!
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