You know that it's important to see your dentist twice a year for checkups and cleanings, but when would you need to see an orthodontist? How are the two dental professionals different? It helps to know what services each professional provides so that when you have a problem with your teeth, gums or another part of your mouth or jaws, you can make an appointment with the proper person to treat your dental needs.
Orthodontist vs. Dentist Training
Orthodontists and dentists undertake the same training initially, but orthodontists complete further training after they graduate dental school. To become a dentist, a person must complete four years of undergraduate education and four years of dental school, according to the American Dental Association. After completing their studies, dentists must pass a rigorous written exam and a clinical licensing exam before they're qualified to practice. Qualified dentists include the letters DDS (Doctor of Dental Surgery) or DMD (Doctor of Medicine in Dentistry or Doctor of Dental Medicine) after their names.
One can choose to practice as a general dentist or to pursue a specialty such as orthodontics, which requires additional training, explains the California Association of Orthodontists (CAO). Approximately 6 percent of dentists are orthodontists. Orthodontic courses go beyond basic dental training and have a more specific focus. The additional education includes a two- or three-year residency and more than 4,800 hours of orthodontic training.
What Do Dentists Do?
Dentists treat patients' overall oral health, explains the American Association of Orthodontists (AAO). Through regular checkups, dentists can spot and treat cavities, mild gum disease and oral hygiene problems, and they can also extract teeth that are beyond saving. Dentists also improve the function and appearance of teeth by applying bonding, veneers or crowns to teeth that are broken, chipped, misshapen or severely decayed. What's more, your dentist checks inside your mouth for signs of oral diseases and gives advice on how to maintain your oral health. If your dentist spots a problem that they aren't qualified to treat, they will refer you to a dental specialist or physician as appropriate.
What Do Orthodontists Do?
The AAO states that orthodontists specialize in aligning the jaws and moving the teeth. What this means in practice is that orthodontists offer treatments to correct crowded teeth, gaps between teeth, teeth that stick out and jaws that don't align properly.
Orthodontists have many tools at their disposal to help them move the teeth and jaws into proper alignment, including traditional braces, lingual braces and clear aligners, among other orthodontic appliances. Because alignment problems are unique to each patient, orthodontists use X-rays and photographs of the teeth to create individualized treatment plans, notes the AAO.
When to See an Orthodontist vs. a Dentist
In some cases, there might be overlap in the services each professional may offer. In some states, dentists are permitted to provide some orthodontic treatments, such as braces, in addition to their general dental services, notes the AAO. However, orthodontists usually only offer treatments that fall within their dental specialty. While you may see dentists advertising orthodontic treatments, only a dental professional who has undergone the proper training can be called an orthodontist.
So, if you need dental treatment, should you call an orthodontist or a dentist? If you have a toothache or suspect you might have developed a cavity, see your general dentist for a diagnosis. If you've been given an orthodontic appliance and it needs repair, your orthodontist will be able to help.
You may only see your orthodontist for the duration of your orthodontic treatment, but you'll visit a trusted general dentist for a lifetime. They will check the health of your teeth, gums and the interior of your mouth and recommend a specialist when necessary. And if you ever need treatment for crooked teeth or a problem that affects your bite, your dentist will refer you to an orthodontist.