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What's The Difference Between A Retainer And A Night Guard?

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Published date field Last Updated:

Medically Reviewed By Colgate Global Scientific Communications

Although they may look similar, orthodontic retainers and night guards for teeth grinding serve different dental functions. But, how do you know which device is right for you? Why would you wear a retainer instead of a night guard, or vice versa? Answers to these questions will help you identify the difference between a retainer and a night guard.

Retainers Help Keep Teeth Aligned

As the American Association of Orthodontists (AAO) explains, the function of a retainer is to maintain the position of the teeth after orthodontic treatment has been completed. One difference between a retainer and a night guard is that retainers are used as part of orthodontics, while night guards are not. The retention phase, according to the AAO, is critical to the long-term success of orthodontic treatment. The primary purpose of an orthodontic retainer is to keep the bones and teeth from shifting after they have been moved through orthodontic treatment.

After a patient has worn braces or another orthodontic device, orthodontists typically prescribe either removable or fixed retainers. Removable retainers can be put in and taken out by the patient, and they're typically made of clear plastic-like material and wire. A fixed retainer is one that an orthodontist or dentist places on the tongue-facing side of the teeth. As the AAO explains, most people wear their retainer for their lifetime, at least nightly, to keep their teeth straight.

Night Guards Protect Your Teeth From Grinding

Night guards, on the other hand, are used for patients with bruxism (teeth grinding), and they protect the teeth during sleep, according to the American Sleep Association (ASA). As the Mayo Clinic notes, your dentist may prescribe a night guard if they diagnose any of the following issues in connection with teeth grinding:

  • Broken teeth
  • Sore jaw muscles
  • Damage to the underlying bone

These guards can either be purchased over-the-counter or made custom by your dental professional, as the ASA explains. They are made of either soft or hard plastic and are worn over the top or bottom teeth. Another difference between a retainer and a night guard is how and when they are worn. Night guards are worn solely at nighttime during sleep, while retainers may be worn during the day or fixed permanently in the mouth.

Do You Need a Retainer or a Night Guard?

Now that you know some of the key differences between a retainer and a night guard, you can be confident asking your dentist what is right for you. Depending on your dental concerns, your dental team can recommend the appropriate treatment for you. If you're looking to keep your teeth aligned after orthodontic treatment, a dental specialist will usually recommend a retainer. For those who grind their teeth at night, a dental specialist will likely advise that they wear a night guard. Whatever your dental concerns are, the best option is to see your dentist and have a thorough exam to determine if a retainer or night guard is right for you.


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This article is intended to promote understanding of and knowledge about general oral health topics. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your dentist or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment.

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