Just as in medicine, there are different types of doctors, so in dentistry, there are different types of dentists. In this blog, we will explain to you what those different types are, as well as when you would need to see one. We use the analogy of medicine, as this is something with which most people are familiar.
What is a General Dentist?
A general dentist is like your primary care physician. This is a dentist trained in all areas of oral health. A dentist’s comprehensive training includes most of the procedures performed by the specialists we describe later.
Just as your primary care physician will manage most of your healthcare needs and refer you to a specialist when necessary, so will a general dentist. Seeing a general dentist consistently allows you to prevent most serious dental problems.
Every dentist is unique with his or her own preferences and advanced skills. For this reason, one dentist may perform a certain procedure while another refers that same procedure to a specialist. For example, some dentists love to see young children, and others refer all children to a pediatric dentist. These are personal choices specific to each dentist and not any kind of statement on his or her abilities.
Specialties in Dentistry
There are several important specialties in dentistry that should be well understood, especially if you have complicated dental needs. Specialists in these areas limit their practice of dentistry to only the realm of care included in their specialty training. Specialist undergo more years of advanced education and training in order to provide this more specialized and advanced care.
The official title of oral surgeons is Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeons. There are two different education paths for oral surgeons, one of which includes a medical degree in addition to the dental training. When people hear oral surgeon, they may think of something simple like wisdom teeth extractions. Oral and maxillofacial surgeons actually perform all surgical procedures on the upper and lower jaws, TMJs (jaw joints) and the soft tissues of the entire mouth.
Oral surgeons also oversee and coordinate with oncologists in cancer treatment for patients with oral cancer.
A periodontist is the dental specialist concerned with the health of the oral structures surrounding the teeth. Periodontists treat diseases of the jawbone and gum tissues around the teeth. They perform surgical procedures, including the placement of dental implants to replace missing teeth. A periodontist can improve the cosmetic appearance of a smile by reshaping the gum tissues.
Periodontists also treat many conditions of the soft tissues inside the mouth, like those resulting from autoimmune disorders.
An endodontist specializes in the nerve and blood vessels inside each tooth (the term endo- means “within”). This means they are the dental specialists with the most advanced training in root canal therapy. Root canals remove infected tissue from within a tooth, allowing someone to save that tooth as opposed to extracting it. Endodontists also perform surgeries to treat issues that originate within the tooth and procedures to protect the continued growth of developing teeth.
Orthodontists work to straighten the teeth, placing each one in the best position for cosmetics and proper function. Most people think of traditional braces with brackets and wires when they hear “orthodontist”. While they do spend a large amount of their time with traditional braces, orthodontists also work with oral surgeons in the treatment of growth and development problems and facial deformities.
Orthodontists see patients of all ages and often work in conjunction with general dentists to achieve great results with cosmetic dental procedures.
Prosthodontists are the dental specialists focused on rebuilding broken down and/or missing teeth. The term prosth- is the same one used in the word “prosthetics”, which we use to describe the replacement of something missing, like a prosthetic arm. Prosthodontics concerns the replacement of missing teeth. They use many different types of dental restorations to create the best, most functional result for their patients. This includes dentures, removable partials, dental bridges, and dental implants. Often they use a combination to achieve a long-term solution to multiple missing teeth.
This one is pretty obvious. These are the dentist specialists who limit their practices to treating children. Pediatric dentists have advanced training in behavior management and sedation techniques. They also treat special needs patients who require extra care in the dental chair.
Pediatric dentists also play the very important role of anticipating and intercepting problems with a child’s growth and development of the teeth, jaws and face.
Other Recognized Specialties
In addition to those listed above, there are four other dental specialties recognized by the National Commission on Recognition of Dental Specialties and Certifying Boards. These are Oral and Maxillofacial Pathology, which involves the diagnosis of diseases affecting the oral cavity. Another is Oral and Maxillofacial Radiology, which uses imaging to identify and diagnose conditions in the mouth and jaws. Public Health concentrates on the prevention of and education about dental diseases through community involvement. The last is Dental Anesthesiology, which limits this specialist to the practice of providing anesthesia for patients undergoing dental treatment.
What Areas of Dentistry are NOT Specialties?
Sometimes it can be confusing understanding when someone is a true specialist in dentistry. Simply reading a dentist’s advertising does not always provide clear answers. There are a few areas of dentistry that are NOT recognized specialties, but because of trends in advertising, patients may think they are. Membership in various associations does not mean that someone has achieved advanced education or training in a certain area.
Many dentists advertising themselves as cosmetic dentists can mislead patients into assuming they have advanced training and certification. While many dentists seek continued education in this area, there is not a specific educational or training path to becoming recognized specialist in the realm of cosmetic dentistry.
Both oral and maxillofacial surgeons and periodontists have advanced training in placing dental implants. Because dental implants are not restricted to recognized dental specialties, many general dentists also place dental implants. Currently, there is no recognized specialty in dental implants.
The TMJ is the most complicated joint in the body, but despite that fact, it does not have a dedicated specialist. Many oral surgeons and general dentists have sought continued education in the area of the management and treatment of TMJ disorders or dysfunction. Because of its complexity, there are actually many schools of thought on the right way to treat it. Patients seeking help with TMJ problems are often frustrated by conflicting opinions and recommendations.
When Do I Need to see a Specialist?
At Premier Dental of Ohio, we limit ourselves to performing dentistry that we know is excellent with a predictable outcome. For that reason, you may see one of our dentists who will perform a root canal, and you may see another who refers you to an endodontist. The basis of the decision to refer to a specialist is answering the question: What will give this patient the best long-term result?
Do you have a question about seeing a dental specialist? Call your nearest Premier Dental of Ohio location to schedule a consultation with one of our dentists. We will evaluate your current situation and recommend the best treatment options, whether it involves a specialty or not.