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What’s the diff? Why an orthodontist is different than a dentist

By Davis August 18, 2017

What’s the Diff?
Read on to learn why an orthodontist is different than a dentist.

Growing up, neither my brothers nor I wore braces. My exposure to orthodontics was limited to sifting through the cafeteria garbage for my best friend’s retainer, which she had accidentally tossed during lunch. But, that was about as far as my orthodontic knowledge extended.

So, when I first heard the term “orthodontist” as an adult (yes, I had adult braces!) I really wasn’t sure what that meant. There was my family dentist—and then there were all the other “ists” out there: endodontists, periodontists, prosthodontists. The list went on, and I didn’t have a clue.

But, I soon discovered that an orthodontist is a specialist in the prevention and treatment of crooked or misaligned teeth and jaws. An orthodontist spends an extra three to four years, after dental school, studying this field. They become experts on facial growth, dental development, and jaw alignment. In their practices, these are the things they focus on exclusively.

Most of us have a family dentist who specializes in general dental and oral health. We visit our dentist for checkups, to fix cavities and repair teeth, as well as diagnose and treat diseases affecting our gums and teeth. Sometimes our dentists perform cosmetic treatments like bonding and whitening. Dentistry is a broad medical specialty, and dentists complete a general dental degree.

While orthodontists do in fact graduate from general dentistry before moving on to a three-year specialist degree, your orthodontist will only practice orthodontics.

Sometimes a general dentist will offer orthodontic services. As a patient, it is important to bear in mind that he or she does not have the university training and experience that an orthodontic specialist has. Most dentists refer patients to a certified orthodontic specialist when it comes to teeth straightening.

Put plainly, the difference is much like a family doctor who practices general medicine vs. a cardiologist who focuses on heart health. Both graduated from medical school but they specialize in different areas. Your cardiologist would not perform your annual checkup, and your family doctor would not treat a heart defect.

That said, when doctors work together you get the best possible results. The same can be said for dentistry: when a dentist works in conjunction with your orthodontist you will achieve a winning smile and superior oral health.

At a Glance

Orthodontist Dentist
  • General Dentistry Degree & Specialized Orthodontic Degree
  • Specializes in straightening teeth, correcting bites, fixing misaligned jaws, and directing facial growth
  • Only practices orthodontics using braces, Invisalign and retainers.
  • General Dentistry Degree
  • Treats dental health related to teeth, nerves, gums and jaws. May also do cosmetic dentistry like bonding and veneers.
  • Practices a broad range of dental care from treating tooth decay and gum disease, to performing extractions and teeth whitening.