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What is the difference between a dentist and an orthodontist?

A woman and a man are looking at a camera in a dentist's office.

We are all aware of the fact that dentists and orthodontists are essential and directly responsible for our teeth health and a beautiful smile. Yet, many people fail to recognize the subtle distinction between these two professions, mistakenly thinking they are the same thing. They do share lots of similarities - they help us keep our oral hygiene in check - however, their specialties and methods vary from case to case.

Therefore, we need to be informed of a few essential differences between dentists and orthodontists to make the proper treatment decisions.

What is an orthodontist, and what is a dentist?

According to Wikipedia, these are straightforward definitions of dentist and orthodontist:

  1. "A dentist, also known as a dental surgeon, is a surgeon who specializes in dentistry, the diagnosis, prevention, and treatment of diseases and conditions of the oral cavity."
  2. "Orthodontics is a specialty of dentistry that deals with the diagnosis, prevention, and correction of malpositioned teeth and jaws, misaligned bite patterns."

Basically, we can say that all orthodontists are dentists, but not all dentists are orthodontists. Of course, their primary interest is our bright smile and perfect teeth, but the principal difference occurs in their method of care, specialized education, and treatment.

Dentists deal with most common dental problems like gum disease and tooth decay. Their priority is their patient's good oral health and making routine cleanings every four to six months. They tackle general issues concerning our oral health and promote general oral hygiene.

Orthodontists are dentists who have chosen to extend their formal dentistry education and specialize (at least a two-years) in orthodontics. Their primary focus regards the jaw and moving of the teeth. Orthodontists take care of dental issues like tooth and jaw alignment. They are qualified to put on braces and deal with oral problems regarding the bite.

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What is a dentist?

To put it simply, they are doctors for teeth.

Similar to all doctors, dentists are expected to be widely trained in their practice before becoming certified. Normally, they go to college for a pre-dentistry or pre-medical degree before graduating from the school of dentistry. They diagnose and treat dental health conditions of your teeth, mouth, gums, and tongue. Dentists are also competent to clean your teeth, but dental hygienists generally take care of that.

When going to the dentist, you can expect the following care:

  • conducting and interpreting dental X-rays
  • filling cavities
  • extracting of teeth (last option for every dentist)
  • repairing of cracked teeth
  • filling and bonding of teeth
  • treating gum diseases
  • prescribing of proper treatment and drugs, for oral health
  • whitening of teeth
  • installing crowns or veneers
  • overseeing the development of children’s teeth
  • oral surgery

Generally, when it comes to our overall oral health and a beautiful smile, a person to go to is the dentist.

Of course, there are some limits to the general dentist's practice.

If you require teeth straightening, a dentist cannot help you. That is why you should ask for the help of the orthodontist.


What is an orthodontist?

Orthodontists are also doctors for teeth, but with a twist. They’re dentists with a specialization in tooth and jaw alignment.

Orthodontics can be referred to as a "younger sibling" of dentistry. It is a relatively modern branch of dentistry that dates back to the mid-1800s. During this time the first simple system for organizing malocclusions (imperfect positioning of the teeth when the jaws are closed) was conceived. This system is still in use today.

Until the mid-1970s, braces were made by enveloping metal around every tooth. With the progress in adhesives, it became possible to bond metal braces to the teeth instead. This progress immensely improved teeth straightening and jaw alignment.

Orthodontists, like dentists, pursue a pre-medical major or pre-dentistry degree before starting dentistry school.

After finishing dental school and taking the certification exam, orthodontists enter an orthodontic residency program for at least 2 years to get a specialization in orthodontics.

Certified orthodontists diagnose and treat oral health of your mouth, teeth, and gums, focusing on making sure your jaw and teeth are set right. Their aim is for you to have perfect teeth and proper jaw bite.

Orthodontists are trained to do the following:

  • overseeing facial growth (bite and jawline) in children
  • diagnosing and treating misaligned teeth and jaws (malocclusion)
  • creating a treatment strategy that involves braces and retainers
  • performing teeth straightening surgery
  • installing dental tools, such as braces, orthodontic headgear, palatal expanders, or Herbst appliances.

Orthodontists help with crooked teeth, but they help patients with other problems as well. That includes underbites and overbites, crossbites, spaces between teeth and overcrowding of teeth. While a dentist may be qualified to provide certain orthodontic care, an orthodontist is better suited to recommend a proper orthodontic procedure.

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A dentist or an orthodontist for braces? Which one is better for braces?

Dentist or orthodontist for braces that is the question. Who to address when it comes to your teeth alignment and beautiful smile? Well, the answer to this "puzzle" is rather simple: orthodontist. While a dentist can still help you out with this issue (to a certain degree), if you want to receive optimal and specialized care, you should go and visit an orthodontist.

Look at it this way: while you can go to your GP medical doctor for your broken arm, it is better to go and see an orthopedist.

As far as placing the braces, orthodontists put a lot of importance on determining proper treatment approaches to avoid any further complications. They are trained to notice the details a dentist might overlook. Going to orthodontists can save you both time and money and reduce the chance of future problems occurring.

It is important to emphasize that you should continue to see your dentist for routine check-ups and cleaning. Even though a referral from a dentist is not necessary for you to see an orthodontist, it is a good idea to consult your family dentist. Just to make sure if you are required to go to a specialist orthodontist.

Both orthodontists and dentists play an important role in maintaining your teeth healthy and looking good. They will continuously work together to deliver optimal results and guarantee you and your children have perfect smile teeth.

Keeping your oral health at check is vital for your overall health. Whether you need a dentist or an orthodontist, don't hesitate or postpone visiting one of them. Rest assured that your teeth are in good hands and remember: “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure (Benjamin Franklin, 1735).”