How Are Self-Ligating Braces Tightened? Explained Simply

Self-ligating braces are a popular and efficient way to straighten teeth. They use a special mechanism to hold the archwire in place, which can make the process of tightening the braces more comfortable for the patient.

In this article, we will discuss what self-ligating braces are, how self ligating braces get tightened, and what you can expect during the activation process.

I’ll also explain what exactly “tightening” is, and why you might feel your teeth become more “tight” or more “loose” depending on what’s happening at each orthodontic appointment.

What are Self-Ligating Braces?

Self-ligating braces are a type of brackets that use a special mechanism (a door or a spring-loaded clip) to hold the archwire in place, instead of traditional elastic or metal ties. This can make the process of tightening the braces more efficient and comfortable for the patient.

The self-ligating bracket itself is typically made of a strong, durable material such as stainless steel or ceramic. The bracket is designed to be as small and discreet as possible, which can make self-ligating braces a popular choice for adults who are self-conscious about wearing braces.

The ceramic self-ligating braces can either have a metal clip, which makes them a bit more visible, or a completely ceramic clip, which can make them more bulky but still discreet.

The door or clip itself can be passive, meaning it closes without applying continuous pressure to the archwire, or active, where a spring forces the clip to press onto the archwire, keeping the wire continuously engaged. Orthodontists use both these systems, but active self-ligating braces (ASLB) are more widespread and proven to be more efficient for aligning teeth.

If you want to know more about self-ligating braces, I’ve written this article that covers SLB in great detail. Today, though, we’re going to talk about how exactly they’re tightened.

When do self-ligating braces need to be tightened

As the name suggests, self-ligating braces don’t need ligatures thanks to their incorporated mechanism. They don’t need elastic ties to keep the wire in place. Then what’s the purpose of going to the orthodontist except changing the wire every now and again? Don’t worry, I’ll explain.

Self-ligating braces are applied much like regular braces. The door or clip is typically left open so that the clinician can maneuver and place the bracket in its correct position. Once all the brackets and molar tubes are bonded, your orthodontist will place a light archwire inside the slot of your self-ligating braces and close the bracket clips or doors one by one.

This process shouldn’t be painful or uncomfortable at all, although some braces do have clips that are more stubborn when being used for the first time, so you may feel some tugging. Many patients report less pain with self-ligating braces in the alignment stages compared to conventional braces, and that’s because the wire friction is so low.

As your teeth move and align, your archwire will start poking in the back of your teeth, and your long figure-8 ligatures (if your orthodontist placed any), will loosen. This is when the braces need to be “tightened” again, which I’ll explain in a moment.

Your orthodontist will typically adjust your self-ligating braces every 6-8 weeks, sometimes less, depending on your individual treatment plan. This is wonderful news because you’re cutting the number of visits in half compared to conventional braces.

What to Expect During the Tightening Process

“Tightening” is a layman’s term used to describe the braces adjustment visit. Traditional braces are tightened by changing the stretched elastic ligature ties (or O rings) with new ones, and perhaps changing the wire too. Self-ligating braces are tightened by taking the wire out and putting it back in, or changing it with a different one. I’ll explain in a minute why this is so important.

But first, how does your orthodontist actually tighten self-ligating braces?

To tighten the self-ligating braces, your orthodontist will use a special tool to open the door or clip on the bracket, allowing the archwire to come out. This instrument may look like a dental probe.

They will then use a pair of pliers to remove the archwire. At this point, the wire is probably bent and misshapen, but since it’s NiTi, it will regain its shape. Your doctor will have the option of either running the wire under cold water to “reset” it, or placing a new wire altogether.

Refreshing the wire and closing the clip is what actually gives the self-ligating braces their “tight” feeling. But there are also other techniques we use for moving teeth, which are borrowed from conventional braces: long metal ligatures and powerchains. These accessories allow us to make the braces even “tighter”, meaning the ligatures and chains will actively pull on your teeth to move them to new locations.

If you have any broken brackets or broken clips, your orthodontist will replace them at this visit, but keep in mind that any broken self-ligating bracket will negatively impact treatment duration, and because you see your doctor less, on average, it might actually take longer to get your broken bracket fixed.

After the braces are tightened, you may feel some discomfort or pressure in your teeth and jaws, which is normal. This discomfort should subside within 48 hours, and you can alleviate some of the pain by eating ice-cold foods like ice cream or frozen yogurt.

It is also important to maintain good oral hygiene during treatment, as self-ligating braces can make it easier for food and plaque to accumulate around the clip and other parts of the bracket.

Self-ligating braces are a modern and efficient way to straighten teeth. The process of tightening them is typically faster and less uncomfortable than traditional braces and often requires fewer adjustments. This doesn’t necessarily mean that self-ligating braces are better than normal braces, but they are more convenient.

If you’re considering this type of treatment, make sure you’re a good candidate and find an orthodontist in your area that routinely (or exclusively) uses self-ligating braces as this type of braces does have a bit of a learning curve.

Whether you’re new to braces or a braces veteran, taking care of your teeth and gums during orthodontic treatment is crucial. That’s why I’ve put together a list of orthodontist-recommended tools that will make caring for your braces a breeze:

  • An awesome mid-range electric toothbrush. Rotating electric brushes are much more effective, in my opinion, than sonic ones. You can keep your teeth white by using whitening replacement heads.
  • A countertop water flosser to blast out food debris between teeth. I know handheld models are tempting, but you’ll need a lot of water. You can almost replace flossing with this and your gums will be healthier.
  • Braces accessories to get into all the nooks and crannies: straight or angled interdental brushes, floss threaders, orthodontic wax or silicone. For pain management, have gel ice packs handy, Orajel, and Mouth Magic (a cool soothing solution for mouth sores).
  • For clear aligner patients, a tool like PUL helps both remove and seat your aligner or retainer. Don’t forget to use a cleaning product like crystals to keep your trays fresh and hygienic.

Looking for advice, a second opinion & support on your braces journey? Join the Facebook group!

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