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How To Become An Orthodontist

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 spent at least a further three years specialising in the field of orthodontics (which includes expertise in corrective appliances such as braces, and tooth and jaw alignment), states the South African Society of Orthodontists (SASO). Here's how to become an orthodontist, including what education and certifications are necessary, and what the role 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 cavities, treats teeth with crowns, veneers, bonding or extractions, and watches for any conditions that affect your oral health.

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:

  • 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 individualised 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 your keen attention to detail and for having high stamina? These characteristics 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.

According to the South African Society of Orthodontists, it can take 10 or more years of education after high school to graduate as an orthodontist. After obtaining an undergraduate degree from a dental school, the future orthodontist must be accepted as a student in an accredited orthodontic programme. This is where the orthodontic student learns the skills required to manage tooth movement (Orthodontics) and guide facial development (Dento Facial Orthopaedics). In South Africa, an orthodontic specialist must be registered with the Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA) as a specialist orthodontist.

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.

Career Paths in Orthodontia and Beyond

According to SASO, orthodontists are uniquely qualified in the diagnosis, prevention and treatment of orthodontic problems. They dedicate their professional lives to creating healthy, beautiful smiles in children, teens and adults.

In addition to orthodontia, there are other specialities for consideration. Endodontists focus on the pulp of the tooth, whereas periodontists treat the gums and bone that support the teeth. If you like children, you may want to consider paediatric 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.