Dentist and Orthodontist (THE DIFFERENCE)

The difference between a dentist and orthodontist. Like medicine, dentistry has a number of sub-specialties. Among these are periodontics, endodontics, and orthodontics. Each requires additional training beyond that given in dental school. Here’s the difference between a dentist and an orthodontist.

Dentist and Orthodontist (THE DIFFERENCE) 2

What Is Orthodontics?

Firstly, the term orthodontics is actually a shortened version of “orthodontics and dentofacial orthopedics.” This specialty, according to the American Dental Association, includes diagnosis, prevention, interception and correction (treatment) of malocclusions (misalignment of the teeth). Orthodontists also deal with abnormalities of the nerves, muscles and bone in the jaw and face of both adults and children. The specialty definition has been in place since 2003. Modern orthodontia has actually been around since 1728 when a dentist named Pierre Fauchard published a book about straightening teeth.


Required Schooling

All orthodontists begin their careers by going to dental school. A bachelor’s degree is usually required to enter the four-year program. Although program curriculum may vary slightly from one school to another, in the first two years, students study topics such as anatomy – and more specifically oral anatomy and pathology (disease), physiology, microbiology, pharmacology, and biochemistry. Students begin their clinical practice in the third year under the supervision of a qualified instructor. In addition, students learn about practice management, as many will become independent practitioners who run their own businesses.



After graduating from dental school, the aspiring orthodontist goes to residency in orthodontics. A typical orthodontic residency lasts two or three years. Residents take more advanced courses in topics such as the biochemistry of bone, microbiology, radiology, biomechanics and research techniques. They learn about growth and development, jaw surgery and how to treat temporomandibular joint (TMJ) and cleft palate problems. In their clinical rotations, they learn how to apply the various types of braces and use other treatment tools like headgear. They must also learn how to use computer-generated treatment plans and similar software that allows them to plan a patient’s care.


Licensing and Scope of Practice

Dentists and orthodontists must both be licensed to practice in all states. They pass an initial examination and then must complete regular continuing education programs in order to remain licensed. Although an orthodontist is a fully-trained dentist and can provide basic care such as filling cavities, treating gum disease or placing a crown, most focus on orthodontia and do very little general dental work. However, in areas where an orthodontist is the only dental practitioner around, an orthodontist may also practice general dentistry.


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Day-to-Day Practice

In terms of day-to-day practice, much of what dentists and orthodontists do is similar. Both assess patients’ oral hygiene, make recommendations for basic oral care and provide patient education. The primary focus for a general dentist, however, is on regular preventive care and repairs or cosmetic procedures. These might include teeth whitening, fillings, crowns, bridges and implants. Dentists also make referrals to orthodontists. The orthodontist focuses on the alignment of the teeth and jaw and uses a variety of different treatments to correct problems such as an overbite, underbite or crooked teeth.


Orthodontic Treatments – Braces

Orthodontists use braces to straighten patients’ teeth. These come in several different versions. The classic system is conventional stainless steel metal brackets and wires, which are adjusted periodically to move the teeth. Rubber bands may also be used to move the teeth into the correct position. Brackets can also be made of clear or white ceramic, which makes them less visible. Some orthodontists are trained in the use of lingual braces, which are applied to the inside of the teeth – again making them less visible.

Invisalign is a completely different system consisting of a removable clear plastic aligner that fits over the teeth. Every few weeks, the patient puts in a new aligner. Therefore, part of the orthodontist’s job is to assess the patient’s situation and make recommendations as to the best kind of braces – not all braces work for all conditions.


Additional Treatments

In addition to braces, orthodontists may provide treatment related to the jaw. For example, even if the teeth are straight, and overbite or underbite can cause problems such as uneven wear, jaw pain or headaches. The shape of the entire face can be affected by serious malocclusion (a term for a bad bite) and the orthodontist may use headgear or other techniques such as face masks to move the jaw into the proper position. Once the braces have been removed, the orthodontist will create a retainer to help ensure the teeth stay in place until the bone has reformed and will maintain position. However, an orthodontic may remove a tooth if necessary to give the remaining teeth room.


When Surgery is Necessary

Orthodontists are not surgical specialists. Their focus is on performing all possible treatments to correct occlusion problems without resorting to surgery. However, in some cases, the orthodontist will recommend surgery as the best solution and send the patient to an oral/maxillofacial surgeon, a different type of dental specialist. For example, if a patient has an extremely large or small jaw for the size of the face and head, the orthodontist will refer to a surgeon before treating the patient with braces.

For routine dental care, see a general dentist. If you need your teeth straightened or have jaw problems, you should see an orthodontist. If you have questions, you can always contact us.



About Gorton & Schmohl Orthodontics

At Gorton & Schmohl Orthodontics, we are dedicating to earning our patients’ respect and trust – and keeping it! Founding partners Dr. Jasmine Gorton and Dr. Bill Schmohl are each board certified by the American Board of Orthodontics, a voluntary certification just 35 percent of orthodontists nationwide currently hold.

Accordingly, we proudly offer the latest technological advances in orthodontic care, including the Damon Clear Braces system, Invisalign and Braces with Colors for kids and teens. Our practice philosophy focuses on maintaining the health of permanent teeth from a very early age, minimizing the need for extractions and invasive surgery later in life. To make an appointment, please contact us at 415-459-8006 or complete our online contact form.

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Gorton & Schmohl Orthodontics
900 Larkspur Landing Circle
Suite 200 Larkspur
California 94939
Phone: 415-459-8006


Dentist and Orthodontist (THE DIFFERENCE)