When you think about the dentist, the first thing that comes to mind are cavities, cleanings, and wisdom teeth. Am I right? There is so much more to the dental field than what many may be aware of so we are going to dive into the different types of dentists.
Now, when I say different types of dentists, I am referring to doctors who focus on the diagnosis, treatment, and management of oral health conditions. We all work together with our medical provider to ensure we are treating your entire body and not just your mouth.
American Dental Association
The American Dental Association (ADA) recognizes twelve different dental specialties. This is is different from a general dentist as these specialties focus specifically on one area of dentistry. General dentists are like school teachers who can teach multiple subjects and specialists are school professors who are experts in a specific area such as Biochemistry or Physics. Let's break it down some more.
In order to get acceptance into a dental school, students must first take several prerequisite courses such as biology, chemistry, calculus, physics, and anatomy. During college, students take these courses to prepare to apply to dental school.
You have to have a good GPA, a high Dental Admission Test (DAT) test score, and a strong overall application in order to get an interview at the dental school. Once you get the interview and you perform well in the interview, you get accepted!
Now that you have been accepted into dental school, you will complete four years and are your DDS or DMD dental degree, making you a general dentist. A general dentist is exactly what it sounds like, they do almost everything involving dentistry. They can even do some of the tasks that dental specialists do, with the proper training of course. We will get to that a little later on.
Some of the work general dentists do includes, dental surgery, promoting dental health, treating oral diseases, cosmetic dentistry, providing dental health education, dental implant surgery, restorative dentistry, teeth whitening, and so much more!
Now, let's get into the oral health specialists and how they treat specific oral health problems. Here are your oral health care providers.
Let's say you know you want to specialize in a specific part of dentistry. While you are in dental school, you can apply for these dental specialty programs.
A general dentist can also apply to become a specialist even after they finish dental school. They will need to go back to school for 2-6 more years, depending on the dental specialty. Also, once you specialize, you do not perform the duties of a general dentist.
For example, your orthodontist (braces doctor) does not perform extractions or fillings on their patients because their specialty is in braces. Instead, they would refer you over to different dental professionals. Now let's break down the 12 ADA-recognized dental specialists.
12 Types of Dentists
Oral Maxillofacial Surgeon
Oral and maxillofacial surgery is a specialty that typically takes an additional 4-6 more years of training to accomplish. When your general dentist refers you to the oral surgeon for your wisdom tooth extractions, this is who they are sending you to. But wisdom teeth extractions are not the only procedures these specialists do.
Oral surgeons specialize in traumatic dental injuries, perform jaw surgeries on hard and soft tissues, treatment of defects, remove cancer lesions (oral pathology procedure), provide medically complex dental services, place dental implants and so much more.
This specialty focuses on putting patients to sleep. This is a specialty, similar to a medical anesthesiologist but specifically for dental. So for example, when you go in to see your Oral Surgeon for your surgery and are being put to sleep, this is the specialist that does that for you.
These specialists typically go from office to office providing their services so they can help multiple dental offices offer sedation and help patients on their oral health journey. Your general dentist can offer sedation as well by inviting this specialist to the office one day a week so he/she can put their patients to sleep for the procedure.
When you think of a root canal, think of endodontics. These are specialists that focus on root canals. Now, the general dentist perform root canals because they have had the training to do them and have the equipment for root canals. Some general dentists do not like to do root canals because of various reasons and some general dentists only complete root canals on certain teeth.
When your dentist refers you to see a "root canal specialist", this is who they are sending you to, and they are the masters of root canals and treating tooth pain.
Dental public health specialists
This field is exactly what it sounds like. It is a dentist who focuses on a population versus a single patient. What do I mean by that? They worry about the oral health care of the entire population and not just the patients they see personally.
A dental public health specialist examines the issues in a specific population and comes up with ways to correct them. For example, water fluoridation in the city water and improving access to dental services by partnering with community clinics.
These specialist work with community organizations to serve the community rather than the individual. They help to ensure the population has access to primary dental care and patient safety.
Oral Maxillofacial radiologist
This specialty focus on radiographs to diagnose conditions such as cancer lesions, TMJ issues, and anything else that be seen on a radiograph or CBCT. They interpret and provide oral surgeons and other dental specialists, including general dentists, on the findings in radiographs.
Oral maxillofacial pathology
When your general dentist or oral surgeon suspects something that looks odd in your mouth, such as a white spot, or a blister, they may want to take a biopsy of it. They basically take a small piece of the lesion and send it off to this specialist. This specialist looks at the piece that was removed under a microscope, and they can diagnose what that lesion is. They can tell if a lesion is malignant (meaning cancer forming) or benign (Non cancer forming).
Oral Medicine specialist
Sometimes, when you take a specific medication, it has side effects that are present in the oral cavity. For example, you can have dry mouth (Xerostomia) by taking certain medications, and these specialists are here to help you manage those issues.
They also help to treat patients who have a book of medications that they are taking. These types of patients are called medically complex because they have a lot going on and require special care. These specialists focus on dental medicine and treating complex medical patients.
If you have pain with your TMJ or if you have frequent headaches or head and neck pain, this is the specialist you want to see. They focus on special oral health care in the mouth, face, cranial nerves, trigeminal neuralgia, numbing of the face, sore muscles in the head and neck region, neck pain, and so much more. If your general dentist cannot find the source of your pain, they may refer you to see this specialist for further evaluation.
This is the braces doctor! Many of you are familiar with braces and have visited one of these specialists in the past. You have to have a referral from your general dentist in order to see an orthodontist for braces, and this is because the general dentist needs to make sure you are cavity free and have good dental health.
Your primary care dental provider will examine your mouth first, complete any dental care needed, control dental diseases, and ensure overall patient health. Then you get to see the orthodontist.
This dental specialist helps diagnose misaligned teeth, spacing, malocclusion, dental and facial problems, and so much more. They work with your dental insurance, but the majority of services for the specialty are not covered by your dental insurance.
Pediatric dentists focus on adolescent oral health. The patients they treat are age-restricted and their offices typically are made so children can have a good time while at the dentist. Your child may need to see the pediatric dentist for sedation dentistry (to be put to sleep) because they are very young and anxious, have a mental disability, or have a lot of dental work that needs to get done.
Your general dentists will refer you to a pediatric dentistry office if they are unable to provide the needed treatment in their dental office. The pediatric dentist will monitor oral development, and overall oral health care, and manage tooth pain in pediatric patients.
Gum and bone specialist are called periodontists. They focus on bone and gum surgeries. So if you have an area where your gums have receded down or have some sensitive teeth, this specialist will perform a special gum surgeries, treating gum disease.
They also focus on the challenging cases of gum disease. The more severe gum disease patients are referred to periodontists to closely monitor and treat their oral health needs. These specialists are also great at placing dental implants.
Dentures, partials, bridges, etc are all a focus of this specialty. They help to rebuild oral health. Some of the work involves restoring missing teeth and restoring dental implants. This specialist works with periodontists, oral surgeons, and other specialists to restore a patient smile with a prosthesis.
General dentistry monitors patient health, manages oral diseases, restores nature teeth, and provides comprehensive dental care. They work with other dental specialist psych s oral and maxillofacial surgeons and periodontists to address specific needs.
A dental specialist handles routine oral healthcare needs and works with a general dentist and primary care provider to provide whole-person healthcare.
- Dr. James Younan, DDS
(AKA Dr. Gibbz, Public Health Dentist)
Disclaimer: This article is for educational purposes only and there is no doctor/patient relationship being established by reading this article. Always consult with your dentist or primary care provider. This article is not intended to offer medical or dental advice to anyone, it is not intended to diagnose any medical or dental conditions that you may have. There are no warranties and/or guarantees being made with the information being presented in this article.