What is a dentist? This seems like the simplest question in the world. Someone as young as five could tell you what a dentist is with reasonable accuracy. A dentist fixes your teeth. That’s a true statement. But if a dentist works on your teeth, what does a dental hygienist, orthodontist, periodontist, and oral surgeon do? To understand what a dentist does, we must first understand what they don’t do, or else we will be under the influence of common misconceptions regarding dentistry.
First off, a dentist is not an orthodontist, though many of their duties can overlap depending on the number of specialties your dentist chooses to learn. Orthodontists specialize in the alignment of your teeth and jaw. If you’ve ever needed braces, there is an extremely good chance you had to see an orthodontist. While dentists can technically fit you for braces, they must achieve what is called a “standard of care”. If their orthodontics are not up to the level of current orthodontists, then a dentist will give you a referral which is most often the case. It takes years of extra training for a dentist to reach the standard of care of orthodontists.
A dentist and dental hygienist are completely different people. When you visit a dentist’s office, the first person you encounter in the exam room is most likely a dental hygienist. He or she will exam your oral health, polish and scrap your teeth, and discuss strategies for oral hygiene. To become a dental hygienist, you must complete two years of training, while a dentist requires a doctoral degree as well as multiple years of residential work.
A dentist is also not a periodontist. While a periodontist has a dental degree, they actually specialize in the structures which hold the teeth. These structures include the gums, jaw bone, and periodontal ligament. If you have gingivitis or require dental implants, there is a strong chance your dentist will refer you to a periodontist.
Dentists are also not oral surgeons. While dentists can extract teeth and perform root canals, some operations are beyond their scope. Oral surgeons receive an extra four years of education just for surgical training on top of their dental degree. The most common reason you would see a surgeon is to have your wisdom teeth removed. You would also see an oral surgeon for severe birth defects or if you were in a serious accident that required dental reconstruction.
Now we can finally talk about what dentists actually do. Dentists are general practitioner of dental health. While they may not remove wisdom teeth, apply braces, or place dental implant, their training and specialization are invaluable. A dentist is your go-to for all your basic dental needs. They can perform x-rays, remove your teeth, and even perform simple root canals. If you are suffering from dental issues, a dentist should always be the first person you visit. Their general training prepares them to recognize a plethora of dental problems. Imagine going to an oral surgeon when you have gum disease, or to a hygienist when you need a root canal? For all basic oral problems and treatments, a dentist is your best bet.