What’s the difference?By: Joyce Kahng, DDS •January 31, 2023
When you need dental services, it’s understandable when you aren’t sure which kind of dentist to call. There are fields of specialization that certain dentists perform, while others specialize in more general services. These fields of expertise can include general dentistry, cosmetic dentistry, orthodontics, and other areas.
Below is more about different types of dentists, what they do, and what people mean when they say, “dentist.”
Often when people use the word “dentist,” they are talking about a medical professional that provides general dentistry services. In reality, orthodontists are still dentists, but have narrowed their scope of practice to their specialty and have additional years of schooling specifically for that field. For example, an orthodontist still has the general training and knowledge to perform fillings, cleanings, and crowns, but they focus only services in their scope such as braces. A good way to think about it is that a dentist may not be an orthodontist, but an orthodontist is a dentist.
Some services that fall under the umbrella of general dentistry include:
General cleanings and checkups are required every six months to ensure ongoing oral health. These services are considered “preventative” and are intended to remove materials that can lead to conditions like cavities and gum disease, while also diagnosing any issues that have developed since the last visit.
During your cleaning, your dentist will remove plaque and tartar, then professionally clean your teeth using specialized toothpaste. Your checkup will include a visual exam and possibly x-rays. If any issues are found, your dentist can set an appointment to resolve them.
If your dentist finds a cavity, they will set an appointment to clean out the tooth that has developed a cavity due to decay, then will place a filling. Fillings provide additional stability and help to prevent any further problems with the tooth.
If a tooth is allowed to decay to the point where it reaches the root, the root will become infected. At that point, a root canal treatment will be required to remove the infection. Once the root canal has been cleared of all bacteria and infected tissue, a filling will be placed.
The services above are some of the most common general services but they aren’t the only services your dentist may provide. For instance, most dentists will provide extractions and may offer implants or other restorative options for damaged or missing teeth.
Cosmetic dentistry is a form of dentistry that focuses on the cosmetic appearance of patients’ smiles. These treatments may also provide functional benefits, along with aesthetic improvements.
Teeth whitening provided by a dentist is more intensive than the whitening that can be performed at home. Cosmetic dentists use special materials both for in-office and at-home treatments. This provides a level of whiteness that cannot be replicated by any at-home, over-the-counter product.
If a tooth is chipped, cracked, or has any other form of minor damage, dental bonding may be considered to repair the tooth. This option involves the placement of a resin that is sculpted while you are in the chair and is hardened on the tooth—creating the appearance of a healthy, natural tooth. Dental bonding is generally only cosmetic.
A dental veneer can be used to improve the appearance of a smile and is a longer lasting solution than bonding. A dental crown is used when the damage to a patient’s tooth is too severe to fix with veneers.
Dental veneers can be made from porcelain or composite materials. Porcelain veneers are intended to enhance the appearance of a tooth by improving the shape, color, or size. This prosthetic most often involves the reshaping of the tooth to hold the prosthetic in place securely, although some people may be a good candidate for no prep veneers as well. Dental veneers can be used for moderate cracks, chips, discoloration, and other issues.
Dental crowns replace the entire natural crown of a patient’s tooth. While this does help to improve the cosmetic appearance of a patient’s damaged tooth, it is also a restorative measure. Dental crowns provide stability, security, protection, and strength. They are the best option for a tooth that still has a healthy root, but a severely damaged crown that cannot be restored with a veneer.
Your dentist will let you know whether dental bonding, a veneer, or a crown is the right option to repair your damaged tooth.
Orthodontics is a form of dental care that involves the correction of misalignment in a patient’s teeth. This may include various restorative appliances, including braces, aligners, and retainers.
Braces are generally what comes to mind when people think of orthodontic treatment. These corrective appliances are applied to the teeth of the patient and are slowly adjusted to correct misalignment, that may include crowding or crookedness. The process of aligning the teeth can take months to years, depending on the severity.
An alternative to braces is invisible aligners. This involves the use of plastic, clear aligners that slowly shift teeth over time. Unlike braces, invisible aligners can be removed easily. The process requires a series of updated aligners to shift the teeth slowly over time. While more severe alignment issues will likely require braces, invisible aligners are a great option for minor to moderate alignment issues. Overall, this really depends on the experience of the provider you choose.
As the name implies, retainers are used to maintain the position of teeth that have been adjusted with orthodontic treatment. Retainers are easy to remove and clean and are generally non-invasive. They need to be worn for the rest of a patient’s life, usually at night, and replaced as needed.
If you require orthodontic treatment, your orthodontist will examine your teeth to better determine which form of treatment is available to you. They may decide you are a candidate for both braces and invisible aligners. If this is the case, you can discuss the various advantages and disadvantages with your dentist. If the issue is too severe, your dentist may determine that braces are your only option.
If you are interested in straightening your teeth, a good way to start is to schedule an appointment with your general dentist. There are some dentists that are trained to complete braces or clear aligners, such as Invisalign, but there are also many that do not provide that service. If the treatment is out of their scope, they will refer you to a trusted orthodontic specialist. If it is cosmetic dentistry that you need, they may refer you to a colleague who has more experience in cosmetics. Keep in mind, though, they are all dentists—no matter what they specialize in!
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