Orthodontist vs Dentist

Dr. Erica Aand
Written by
Dr. Erica Aand
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Evidence Based
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What is a Dentist?

A dentist is a clinical practitioner who focuses on the health of the oral cavity. Dentists will traditionally treat patients who suffer from tooth decay and gum disease. They are trained to diagnose and treat problems of the teeth, gums, tongue, and mouth. 

Dental Team

It is well known that our oral health directly affects our overall well-being and can impact health conditions like cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and arthritis. Dentists are educated in recognizing signs of oral cancer and can work with physicians to manage a patient's oral health.  A dentist helps patients maintain their oral health from childhood to geriatrics. 

What is an Orthodontist?

An orthodontist is a dental specialist that focuses on good teeth and jaw alignment. They correct malocclusions like an overbite or underbite. According to the American Association of Orthodontists (AAO), an orthodontist diagnoses, prevents, intercepts, and treats all dental and facial irregularities. 

Most people think of an orthodontist when they have crooked teeth and need braces to straighten their teeth, and while this is true that a significant portion of an orthodontist's job, they also perform many other dental services.

An orthodontist helps identify jaw and bite problems that can affect a person's quality of life like temporomandibular joint problems, eating, speaking, sleeping, and breathing issues. Orthodontists are trained to help diagnose early problems in adolescence like a crossbite and intervene before entirely preventable issues like impacted teeth and misalignment of the jaw occurs.

Orthodontist vs. Dentist: What's The Difference?

A general dentist is similar to a primary care physician where they can identify and treat most oral health problems but don't specialize in a particular area. A dentist's services typically include:

  • Restorative fillings
  • Oral surgery
  • Periodontal therapy
  • Veneers
  • Crown and bridge
  • Root canal therapy
  • Removable appliances like dentures
  • Preventive services like sealants and fluoride
  • Teeth whitening
  • Oral hygiene instruction

Some general dentists will take continuing education courses and train to treat dental implants, Invisalign, and sleep apnea appliances. When problems may arise outside a general dentist's practice scope, they may refer to another dental specialist like an orthodontist, periodontist, prosthodontist, or oral surgeon. Since dental education is so advanced and continues to progress as new dental technology emerges, recent graduates are trained in more techniques and often perform more specialized treatment. 

The education to become a dentist is lengthy and costly. All accredited dental schools in the United States are four years of dental education and training. The typical education sequence for a dentist includes: 

  • High School Diploma (4 years)
  • College Diploma (4 years)
  • Accredited Dental School to earn a Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS) or Doctor of Medicine in Dentistry (DMD) (4 years)
  • Optional General Practice Residency (GPR) and Advanced Education General Dentistry (AEGD) Program

Some states require a residency program following dental school to pursue a dental specialty, while others allow new dental graduates to go directly into private practice. Some general dentists will advance their careers by taking a challenging course load of continuing education classes to become a Master or Fellow of the Academy of General Dentistry. According to the American Dental Association (ADA), approximately only 6% of the nation's general dentists achieve this status. 

An orthodontist will traditionally treat crowded teeth with braces, but several types of appliances and services they offer that many people may be unaware of are available. Common services provided by orthodontists are:

  • Traditional braces (metal and clear)
  • Lingual braces
  • Clear Aligner treatment
  • Retainers
  • TMJ treatment
  • Early intervention braces for adolescents
  • Myofunctional therapy
  • Surgical orthodontics
  • Sleep apnea 

The education requirements of an orthodontist are similar to a general dentist but require additional training in a 2 to 3 year orthodontic residency program following dental school. Many orthodontists will also opt to become board-certified through the American Board of Orthodontics. While it is not required, it is a highly recognizable achievement. 

Can a Dentist Do Orthodontics? 

It is common for many general dentists to offer simple orthodontic services like Invisalign for mild to moderate cases. Many clear aligner companies offer training for general dentists to provide this service for their patients. Although there is sufficient training for some dentists, severe orthodontic cases that involve jaw discrepancies and impacted teeth should be referred to an orthodontic specialist. 

An orthodontist has more education and training to treat difficult cases that may involve multidisciplinary care like oral surgery and prosthodontics. 

Do Orthodontists Clean Teeth?

Orthodontic patients are typically in braces for up to 24 months, so it is common for an orthodontic practice to employ dental hygienists to maintain good oral health. However, it is doubtful an orthodontist will clean patients' teeth, and patients will often need to return to their general dental practice for a thorough cleaning and maintenance.

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