Getting good dental care is one of the most important things you can do for your lifelong health. As with medicine, there are several different kinds of dentist, each with a unique role to play in your oral health. In addition, there are professionals such as dental hygienists that are not dentists but will be involved in your care. Understanding the differences between these professionals is essential to making educated decisions about the dental health of both you and your loved ones.
What Does a General Dentist Do?
The most common type of dentist is a general dentist. All dentists go through around eight years of school, including four years of dental school. This education and training qualifies people to be a general dentist. Some dentists undergo additional training and residencies to become specialists, but most will remain a general dentist. This is the most common type of dentist.
These dentists are the first line of care for your teeth. They are involved in preventative care such as check-ups and cleanings. In addition, they can perform fillings, gum treatments, root canals, bridges, and most routine dental work. Many people will only see a general dentist in their adult life. However, there are many types of dental specialist for people whose teeth need special care.
Got Kids? See a Pediatric Dentist
Although general dentists are qualified to treat all ages, many parents prefer to see a pediatric dentist for their children’s dental needs. Pediatric dentists complete at least two years of specialized pediatric training after receiving their doctorate in dental school. In many ways, they perform the same procedures as general dentists, but they have been specially trained in the unique needs of children. Pediatric dentists are also known as pedodontists, which is the technical name for their specialty.
A pediatric dentist often is better at working with children, particularly infants, toddlers, and children with special needs. They know how to prevent cavities and other common disorders in children’s teeth. In addition, they tend to be people who love children and have a special gift in working with them. Pedodontists generally will see infants when they develop their very first baby teeth and then follow them until they reach adulthood. Their offices are often more engaging to children and are tailored to make their first experiences with dentistry as non-threatening and fun as possible.
What Is an Endodontist?
Our teeth are made of several different layers. The innermost layer is called the dental pulp. This layer can become inflamed and cause pain or even infection. Because the pulp is so delicate, it is covered with several layers of tissue and enamel to protect it. While most dental issues involve the exterior of the teeth, disorders of the pulp can be devastating and painful. An endodontist is a dentist who has specialized in these kinds of disorders.
An endodontist typically will go through an additional two or three years of study after dental school. After finishing their training, they will serve mainly as a specialist seeing people who have diseases of the dental pulp that do not respond to general dentistry treatments. They perform specialized surgeries, including more detailed forms of root canals. In addition, they can be extremely effective in treating dental pain caused by inflammation of the dental pulp.
Most people will never need the services of this kind of dental specialist. However, these professionals can be extremely helpful when needed. Studies have found that people who have endodontists on their dental team have better outcomes with faster resolution of pain.
Orthodontists: Maintaining Beautiful and Healthy Teeth
Orthodontists are one of the better known dental specialties. Many people see these professionals to get braces or other treatments that straighten teeth and re-align the jaw.
An orthodontist begins as a dentist. After dental school, they enter a special program training them specifically in orthodontics, which is the field that treats malpositioned teeth and related jaw disorders. After graduation, they are qualified to diagnose and treat orthodontic disorders of varying complexity. These may be treated with braces, spacers, invisible aligners, or other orthodontic appliances.
Although we think of braces and related work as purely cosmetic, there is usually a valid medical and dental need for this care. Misaligned teeth can cause an improper bite that leads to long term pain or even jaw damage. In addition, crowded or inappropriately spaced teeth can lead to increased decay and other dental issues. Although we think of orthodontics as a field for children, many adults see these professionals as well. An orthodontist plays an important role in preventing these issues and supporting good long term dental health.
What Does an Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeon Do?
An oral and maxillofacial surgeon undergoes the most training of any dental professional. First, they complete the eight or more years of school needed to become a dentist. They then go through a residency program of four or more years in surgery. Many undergo even more training after this residency. After their training, they are qualified to perform surgery throughout the mouth and jaw, as well as performing the anesthesia during these procedures.
General dentists can perform a wide variety of surgeries. However, an oral and maxillofacial surgeon is qualified to perform more detailed procedures. In addition, they will perform surgeries that require general anesthesia, or completely putting a person under anesthesia.
In general, these surgeons perform procedures such as complicated tooth extractions, corrective jaw surgery, and cleft palate surgery. These surgeries are extremely complex and can mean breaking and resetting the jaw. They often take several hours and must be performed in a hospital or surgery center rather than a dentist’s office. Most people will go to their surgeon for a consultation, then see them a few times after the surgery for follow-up. The rest of their treatment plan will be handled by their regular dentist.
Periodontists: Experts in Gums
Most dental problems do not involve the teeth, but the gums as well. The guns are crucial in keeping our teeth attached, aligned, and functional. Like other dental tissues, they can be damaged or become inflamed. If you have issues with your gums that are beyond the scope of general dentists, they may refer you to a periodontist.
A periodontist undergoes dental school and then another three years of training in their specialty. This qualifies them to treat a variety of diseases of gums as well as handling dental implants. In general, these professionals will perform a variety of procedures such as scaling, planing, and debridement, all of which help to restore gum health when there is an issue with the tooth root and gum. In addition, they are qualified to perform gum transplants and other surgeries on the gums. Last, periodontists handle dental implants, which are an increasingly popular alternative to dentures. They can diagnose the need for these implants, fit them, and install them.
An increasing amount of dentists are referring patients to periodontists rather than handling serious gum issues themselves. Periodontists are uniquely qualified to prevent and treat gum disease in all of its forms.
Prosthodontists: Handling Dentures and More
Although we all want to keep a mouthful of healthy teeth for a lifetime, many of us will lose some or all of our teeth before we die. There is an ever-expanding range of ways to deal with this, from dentures to implants to bridges and beyond. Although dentists can handle some kinds of dental prosthetics, a prosthodontist is an expert in the complete range of dental prosthetic fitting, implantation, and ongoing care.
A prosthodontist graduates dental school and then attends an additional three year program. In addition, many seek special certifications in subspecialties. They then can fit and place any of the many options for replacing lost teeth. In general, they are experts in allowing patients to chew, speak, and feel proud of their smiles even in the face of huge dental challenges.
In the past, dentures and bridges were the only options for replacing lost teeth. However, there are a variety of modern options that are more attractive and can cause less discomfort. In addition, they often specialize in treating temporomandibular junction disorder (TMJ) and other disorders that can damage teeth, reducing the need for tooth extractions and replacement.
What Is an Oral Pathologist?
One of the rarest specialists in the dental world is that of the oral pathologist. They are often both dentists and physicians who specialize in the pathology of the mouth. In some cases, they are dentists who undergo many years of additional training in pathology. These programs are very rare and selective.
In general, this professional specializes in diseases of the tissues of the mouth. They usually do not treat teeth, but rather the tongue, salivary glands, palate, and other soft tissues of the mouth. The treatment of cancers and other life-threatening diseases of these tissues is the specialty of the oral pathologist. They also help to treat people with salivary gland disorders or other common endocrine diseases that affect the tissues in the mouth. In addition, they often consult when these tissues need to be reconstructed due to trauma or congenital disorders.
Most people will never need to see this kind of dental specialist due to the very narrow and specialized range of care that they offer. However, they can be an important and even life-saving part of a medical and dental team when they are needed.
Is a Dental Hygienist a Dentist?
Many people see a dental hygienist when they visit their dentist. However, this dental professional is not actually a dentist. Dental hygienists attend a different kind of school and have their own unique scope of practice. In general, they get a two to six year university degree from a school with a program that is accredited by the ADA, which is the same association that accredits dental schools.
Dental hygienists are the first line of defense in preventing and treating dental disease. They usually examine teeth, get radiographs/x-rays, document changes in teeth, and perform other diagnostic work. In addition, they perform dental cleanings, administer fluoride, apply sealants, and perform a variety of other minor procedures. They are particularly important in patient education, showing patients how to brush, floss, and otherwise provide routine care for their teeth and gums. In most cases, dental hygienists work in a dentist’s office and consult with the dentist on each patient’s care.
Although these professionals are not dentists, they are a very important part of dental care. In fact, most patients will spend as much or more time with their hygienist than with their actual dentist. Most dental appointments in the Western world include time with hygienists followed by time with the dentist. However, some people need more routine cleanings or special gum care and thus will see just hygienists at some of their appointments.
Although there are many different kinds of dentist, each plays a unique role in helping to maintain dental health. Although you will likely never need some of these dentist specialties, each is available to help you maintain your good dental health if you ever need specialized care.