What is the difference between an orthodontist and a dentist?

Aren’t orthodontists and dentists the same thing? This a common misconception. In reality, orthodontist and dentists are not the same at all. An orthodontist is a dentist by training, but they practice a very specific dental specialty. While it is recommended that all children and adults should routinely see a dentist, not everyone needs an orthodontist. Below more details are provided to help describe what orthodontists do and what are the major differences between orthodontists and dentists.

Orthodontists vs. dentists

Generally, orthodontists and dentists have a similar goal: to help patients improve their oral health. Both orthodontists and dentists are doctors who work in a dental practice and provide oral care. However, the treatments they use to achieve their goals and provide oral care are different. There are more differences than similarities between orthodontists and dentists, here are a few: 

General dentistry: dentistry is a broad medical practice that addresses the health of teeth, gum, nerves, and the jaw. The majority of general dental practice involves encouraging good oral hygiene and providing treatments for:

  • Tooth decay
  • Root canals
  • Gum disease
  • Tooth replacement, including crowns and bridges
  • Cosmetic fixes, including veneers and teeth whitening

Orthodontics: Orthodontics is a specialty practice within dentistry that specifically focuses on treating dental issues involving misalignment and spacing. To become a licensed and certified orthodontist, an individual must complete traditional dental school, which is usually four years, and then additional training in orthodontics, which is usually two to three more years. Additionally, an orthodontist is experienced and trained to help treat problems with the jaw. Orthodontics provide treatments for:

  • Misaligned teeth
  • Crowded teeth
  • Overbite
  • Underbite
  • Occlusion

Overall, an orthodontist is a dentist with essentially double the training. A dentist may be trained to provide orthodontic care beyond their general dentistry treatments, however orthodontists are dentists with additional training and expertise to provide orthodontic care. Approximately 6% of general dentists complete the additional training requirements necessary to be a certified orthodontist.

When is Orthodontic treatment needed?

If you have a dental issue that needs orthodontic treatment, such as an overbite, occlusion, misaligned teeth and jaws, or a mouth that is overcrowded, your dentist should refer you to an orthodontist who will diagnose the issue and develop an appropriate orthodontic treatment plan. Once the dental issue has been diagnosed, there are many different treatment approaches that may be used. If your issue is crooked teeth, your orthodontist will likely recommend braces. If the issue is a gap between the teeth, pulling the teeth closer together will be the solution. The most common orthodontic treatment solution that most Americans are familiar with is braces. If dental issues that require orthodontic treatment are left untreated, the issues will likely grow worse overtime and cause more severe problems like tooth decay, tooth loss, or chronic pain.

The orthodontic treatment plan

One of the other big differences between a general dentist and an orthodontist is the typical treatment plan. A regular visit to the dentist may require an exam, professional cleaning, and a quick cosmetic or prophylactic fix. On the other hand, when you see an orthodontist, you should expect to make several return visits for the full treatment plan. For example, the treatment plan for the application of braces involves: 1) an appointment where the orthodontist will diagnosis the alignment issues and take x-rays, 2) an appointment for the installation of braces, and 3) several follow-up visits for the adjustment and tightening of the braces. Overall, the entire braces treatment plan usually takes between one and three years. Not all orthodontic treatments will take 3+ visits to fix or treat dental issues, but on average, more than one visit should be expected.

How do I know if I need an Orthodontist?

If you suspect you have issues with alignment or spacing, you should start by visiting your general dentist and asking for a consult. Your general dentist will examine and identify any issues, and then determine if they can be treated with a simple dental treatment or need more extensive orthodontic treatment. Your dentist will know best and will refer you to an orthodontist if your issue requires it. If your dentist offers to provide some orthodontic treatment, it may be worthwhile to ask if they have completed orthodontic specialty training from an accredited training program. If your dentist identifies an issue with your teeth that may require orthodontic treatment, it is worthwhile to ask them for a referral to at least consult with a certified orthodontists.

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