What Are Teeth Alignment Trays And How Do Clear Aligners Work?

dr. trevor nichols
By Dr. Trevor Nichols
Mesa, Arizona

Orthodontic options for patients continue to evolve. But with more options and more marketing, it can lead to confusion, so I enjoy it when my patients ask questions that enable me to better educate them about various orthodontic treatment options and how they work and are different from each other.

Recently, I have been getting a lot of questions about clear aligners for teeth straightening and how clear aligners work. In this piece, I hope to answer those questions and more.

First, it’s important to state that clear aligner therapy can create beautiful smiles for a wide variety of teen and adult patients with different orthodontic issues and levels of severity. While clear aligners may not be right for every malocclusion, they do efficiently and effectively treat most cases of overcrowding, overbite, underbite, open bite, deep bite, crossbite, and cases with sizeable gaps between teeth.

How Do Clear Aligners Work?

Clear aligner treatment consists of wearing a series of removable, clear plastic trays. These clear aligner trays are made of a semi-rigid material made specifically for this purpose that gently moves teeth from an undesirable state to a more desirable (medically and aesthetically) position with a gentler force than traditional metal braces. The clear teeth trays are custom made from a 3D scan of the patient’s mouth. After viewing the patient’s mouth images, the orthodontist can devise a treatment plan with sophisticated software that can compare and contrast multiple treatment approaches. Depending upon the complexity of the case, the doctor may incorporate attachments into the treatment plan, which can further aid in the teeth movement. Treatment plans are customized to each patient so treatment duration varies. But many patients can be treated in 10-20 months, depending upon the severity of the case.

The number of different aligners a patient will wear varies based on the required treatment time. But most patients receive a new aligner about every two weeks. If a patient’s treatment protocol is expected to last about 12 months, the patient likely will wear 20-24 different sized aligners until treatment completion.

Aligners are to be worn about 22 hours a day, basically around the clock, except when a patient is eating, drinking, or brushing his or her teeth.

What are the Benefits of Clear Aligner Treatment?

In addition to effectiveness, clear aligners offer some desirable characteristics:

  • Aligners provide a very discreet teeth-straightening option because they are made out of nearly invisible plastic material versus shiny metal.
  • Because they consist of a series of plastic aligners versus conventional brackets and wires, patients do not have the discomfort associated with traditional wire changes, tightening or potentially scratching the insides of the mouth.
  • Aligners are removable, so patients can eat, drink, brush, and floss without any restrictions.
  • Aligners usually require fewer in-office visits, enabling patients to visit their orthodontist for a checkup and to pick up new aligners about every 8-10 weeks.

How Do I Keep Clear Aligners Clean?

Knowing that an aligner will be worn anywhere from 1-3 weeks, patients usually ask me how to keep aligners clean. Because each custom aligner is removable, patients can brush and clean their aligners when they are brushing their teeth. This will reduce bacterial buildup and keep the aligner as clear as possible.

Know Your Clear Aligner Options

There are a number of companies now offering aligner treatment and you may have seen options on TV or in social media advertising. This is where it is important to do your research. Several of these offer products that can be purchased directly from the manufacturer and do not involve any doctor visits. Since the science behind moving teeth typically requires moving jaws and root structures, not just the teeth, the American Association of Orthodontics (AAO) recommends this be done under a guided treatment plan with an orthodontist who has specific education and training in this specialty versus using an at-home treatment regimen without doctor visits. It is not uncommon for patients of at-home products to not get the smiles they expected; sometimes something can go very wrong, and patients come to me to fix the smile they just invested in with a mail-order product.

In addition to different manufacturers that sell aligners directly to patients, there are different aligner manufacturers that sell only to orthodontists. Some doctors do not provide aligner treatment. Some use this treatment method exclusively. Some orthodontists prefer one manufacturer’s product over another’s. Be sure to ask about newer options with true advantages.

My patients, for example, like the benefits of the Spark™ Clear Aligner System. Spark has been available for several years here and in other countries. It produces truly beautiful smiles, while offering patients a more discreet option with the clearest material available that also is resistant to staining. My patients find Spark to be more comfortable than the leading aligner treatment because it is made with a softer material than the competitive product and comes with polished, scalloped edges for more a comfortable wear.

A key component of orthodontic treatment is an accurate diagnosis and consultation with one or more orthodontists. Based on your clinical assessment, you can ask each doctor what he or she recommends as a preferred treatment approach, whether clear aligners would be a good choice for you, whether the doctor offers Spark or another manufacturer’s product, how long they predict treatment to take, and how they might work with you to make your teeth-straightening journey affordable through insurance and a possible payment plan.

I hope this information helps you as you look to achieve the smile of your dreams. A healthy, beautiful smile is priceless and provides years of happiness, improved self-confidence, and the benefits of good oral health.

*The opinions expressed in this article are those of Dr. Trevor Nichols. Ormco is a medical device manufacturer and does not dispense medical advice. Clinicians should use their own professional judgment in treating their patients.