Orthodontist vs. Dentist: What’s the Difference?

By August 25, 2020 September 28th, 2020 Blog, Orthodontics
orthodontist-or-dentist-teeth-testing

I love dentists! Okay, full disclosure, as an El Dorado Hills orthodontist, I am technically a dentist and I went to dental school. Furthermore, my better half and wife, Lisa, is also a dentist, so I literally LOVE dentists. Additionally, a lot of my patients are referred to Jeffrey Kwong Orthodontics by their general dentist so maybe I’m a little biased. But, still, your general dentist plays such an important role in maintaining your oral health and, by extension, your overall health. So when it comes to orthodontist vs. dentist, is there a big difference? Can’t your orthodontist also check for cavities or treat gum disease? Could you ask your general dentist to put braces on your teeth? To help clear up these questions, I’ll be covering the difference between an orthodontist and dentist. 

What’s the Difference Between a Dentist and an Orthodontist?

Dentistry is a broad branch of medicine that focuses on the oral cavity and related structures. The teeth, gums, jaw bones and nerves all fall into this category. While your orthodontist and general dentist both ensure you have a healthy, beautiful smile, the difference boils down to their training and focus. Dentists are generalists while orthodontists are specialists. Think of dentists as the family doctors or general practitioners of the dental world while orthodontists are more akin to an orthopedist or any other specialist who deals with one area of health.

Dentists are concerned with your overall oral health and they’re your primary care dental provider. They typically offer preventative services like cleanings, exams, x-rays, oral cancer screenings, fluoride treatment and sealants. They also provide restorative and cosmetic dental procedures, including fillings, crowns, bridges, dental veneers, teeth whitening, gum disease treatment and more. As the point person of your dental care, they’ll often give you a referral to a specialist like an endodontist, prosthodontist, oral surgeon or an orthodontist.

Now, what is an orthodontist? An orthodontist specializes in the diagnosis, prevention and treatment of malocclusions. Let’s break that down; we are specialists in diagnosing, preventing and treating bad bites, due to problems in the teeth and jaws. We’re experts in facial growth and dental development and in safely and effectively shifting the teeth and jaw into place using different appliances, including conventional braces, InBrace invisible braces and Invisalign. Orthodontists only do orthodontics and that makes us the most qualified to provide comprehensive, efficient orthodontic treatment. 

What are the Educational Requirements for an Orthodontist vs. Dentist?

The other main differentiating factor when it comes to an orthodontist vs. dentist, aside from their focus, is the training. Every orthodontist is a dentist but not every dentist is an orthodontist. Orthodontics, or technically orthodontics and dentofacial orthopedics, is a speciality within the larger field of dentistry. Here is how the educational and training requirements differ:

General Dentist Education:

  • High school diploma
  • A bachelor’s degree from a university or college
  • A doctorate degree in dental surgery or dental medicine from an accredited dental school

Orthodontist Education:

  • High school diploma
  • A bachelor’s degree from a university or college
  • A doctorate degree in dental surgery or dental medicine from an accredited dental school
  • Two to three years of speciality training in an accredited orthodontic residency program culminating in either a master’s degree and/or certificate in orthodontics

How long does it take to become an orthodontist? After high school, orthodontists go to school for 10 to 11 more years! I spent about 7,000 hours in just my residency alone, learning about orthodontics (so it wasn’t just a few weekend classes at a Holiday Inn Express) and honestly, it was one of the best experiences, and most fun that I’ve ever had.  

When Should You Visit an Orthodontist?

The American Association of Orthodontists recommend that children have their first orthodontic evaluation at age seven. When you bring your child to visit us at Jeffrey Kwong Orthodontics, I’ll examine them and make sure their teeth and jaw are developing properly. Most of the time, this will simply kick off an observational period. Your child will come in occasionally for complimentary visits and I’ll let you know when the time is right to start treatment. 

However, sometimes, if I do spot certain red flags, beginning interceptive treatment while a child is still growing allows me to guide their jaw and facial growth to prevent more serious issues from occurring. It will make treatment down the road easier and helps them reduce the need for jaw surgery or extractions. 

That being said, orthodontists treat patients of all ages. In fact, more than a quarter of my patients are adults! So, whether you’re seven or 70, it’s never too late for an evaluation. Straightening your teeth will not only improve your appearance and give you a fantastic smile, it can also improve your oral health, make chewing and speaking easier, align the jaw to take pressure off of the temporomandibular joints, prevent injury to protruding teeth and ward off uneven wear. Plus, loving your smile will give you a huge boost in confidence. Getting the smile you want has never been easier for your lifestyle needs, and you can even show off your smile without showing off your braces with technology like InBrace invisible braces.

Some general dentists do offer clear aligner treatment. However, any time you’re considering straightening your teeth, it’s a good idea to visit an orthodontist since orthodontics can create permanent changes in your teeth, jaw and facial structure. We have the training and expertise to determine the underlying cause of your malocclusion, or improper bite, and then develop a personalized treatment plan to give you a beautiful, functional smile that lasts a lifetime. 

Ultimately, while there are differences in what we do, dentists and orthodontists work hand in hand. Building a beautiful/handsome smile is much like building a house. There has to be a solid foundation, and this is where your general dentist comes in. They make sure that the underlying gums, bones and teeth (the foundation) are ready prior to starting orthodontics. Orthodontics is much like setting up the frames together on the foundation, and depending on the size and shape of the “2x4s” (teeth) we’re given, we may work with your dentist to help them finalize your smile.

Now that you know the difference between a dentist and an orthodontist, if you’re ready to find out what an orthodontist can do to give you the smile you’ve always wanted, schedule a complimentary in-person or virtual consultation at Jeffrey Kwong Orthodontics. To learn more about how we’re keeping our patients safe, see our COVID-19 protocols.

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