Every mouth and bite is unique, and getting a straight and healthy smile may require the expertise of an orthodontist, who helps individuals achieve properly aligned teeth and jaws. This specialist is a qualified dentist who has completed advanced training in corrective appliances (such as braces) and tooth and jaw alignment, states the American Association of Orthodontics (AAO). Here's how to become an orthodontist, including what education and certifications are necessary, and what the role and salary entails.
Orthodontists Are Dentists, Too!
What's the difference between an orthodontist and the general dentist you visit twice annually? While an orthodontist is trained in general dentistry, you wouldn't seek out this specialist for a toothache. Your general dentist should be your first point of contact for oral health concerns such as tooth pain. A general dentist addresses possible tooth decay, treats teeth with crowns, veneers, bonding or extractions and watches for any conditions that affect your oral health, explains the AAO.
Orthodontists are trained in creating a healthy bite, developing proper alignment, understanding the size and position of your upper and lower jaws and identifying how your teeth are set within them. An orthodontist will also work with your general dentist to determine if your gums and teeth are healthy enough for orthodontic treatment.
A Day in the Life of an Orthodontist
You might think an orthodontist only treats children or teens by placing braces or other appliances. The truth is they treat patients of all ages by solving alignment or bite problems and preventing these problems from becoming worse down the line. Orthodontists treat the following common conditions, among others, according to the American Dental Association (ADA):
- Crowded teeth
- Teeth that meet improperly
- Teeth that don't meet at all
- Teeth that have a gap between them
- Protruding teeth
As specialists in jaw and tooth alignment, they create the best individualized plan for their patients and are experts in recommending the right type of appliances for each unique case.
Educational Requirements for Orthodontists
Do you enjoy working with your hands and solving problems? Are you known for being keenly detailed and having high stamina? These characteristics, per the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), bode well for a career in oral medicine. If you're thinking about pursuing this profession, you'll want to learn about the rigorous educational requirements.
An orthodontist completes an orthodontic residency after graduating dental school, explains the AAO. It typically takes a total of 10 to 11 years before they are certified and licensed to practice; that's about four years at an accredited undergraduate school, four years at an accredited dental school and two to three years in an accredited orthodontics residency program. According to the BLS, orthodontists in training need to take the following steps before being able to practice:
- Obtain an undergraduate degree
- Pass the Dental Admission Test to be able to apply for dental school
- Complete dental school and residency
- Pass the National Board Dental Examination
- Obtain a license to practice orthodontics as a specialty, which may require a special state exam
According to the American Dental Education Association, there's no recommended undergraduate major for aspiring orthodontists. However, dental schools typically require prerequisite coursework in biology and chemistry. Students wondering how to become an orthodontist might join their undergraduate predental society or work or volunteer in a clinic or office.
Like medical school, dental school is highly demanding. Students split their time between coursework in anatomy, periodontics and radiology, as well as clinical practice, where they gain experience working with patients, according to the BLS.
Career Paths in Orthodontia and Beyond
The path to becoming an orthodontist is a competitive one. According to the AAO, there are more applicants for orthodontics residencies than there are available positions, with about 15 applicants for every residency opening. But once you do become an orthodontist, you'll be paid well. The BLS reports that orthodontists earn $208,000 on average annually.
According to the ADA, there are other specialties to consider beyond orthodontia. Endodontists focus on the pulp of the tooth, whereas periodontists treat the gums and bone that support the teeth. If you like kids, consider pediatric dentistry, which focuses on oral care for children and adolescents. But if helping a patient achieve their dream smile sounds most appealing, a career in orthodontics could be in your future.