The ABCs of Dental Specialities

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Translating oral healthcare specialists for a less scary visit to the dentist chair

By Beth Krueger

As we recline in that familiar chair, our dentist may tell us that we have a situation that requires the expertise of an oral healthcare specialist. These specialists may be an endodontist, a periodontist, an orthodontist, or an oral and maxillofacial surgeon.
Reasons for this referral may include the complexity of the process, your combination of health conditions, or other factors that would result in consultation and coordinated treatment plan between your regular dentist and the specialist. That’s understood, but Max who? Endo what? Ortho how? Just what are these dental fields?
Arm yourself with knowledge, so the next time your dentist suggests a referral, you understand what questions to ask to be your own best advocate. Let’s take an alphabetical look at the ten specialties designated by the National Commission on Recognition of Dental Specialties and Certifying Boards. These specialties generally require several years of advanced training beyond dental school education.
Endodontists focus on the interior of the tooth where we find the canals with tissue (pulp) around the root of the tooth (periradicular). Yes, this includes addressing tooth pain and root canal treatment, as well as other procedures relating to the interior of the tooth. You may hear your specialist say that their goal is to “save the tooth.” (aae.org).
Oral maxillofacial surgeons provide surgery and treatment relating to hard and soft tissues of the face, mouth, and jaw, performing complex procedures or those that require significant levels of sedation. This may include such actions as extractions, jaw surgery, and cleft lip or cleft palate procedures (aaoms.org). Two other specialties in this area of the mouth are oral maxillofacial radiologists of the teeth and jaws (aaomr.org) and oral maxillofacial pathologists—the latter being the science that investigates the causes, processes, and effects of disease in this region (aaomp.org).
Orthodontists align the jaw and straighten teeth and may employ braces, retainers, aligners, and headgear to give you the best smile possible. They address abnormalities in the position of the teeth (malocclusion) and neuromuscular and skeletal problems. This field also is known as dentofacial orthopedics (mylifemysmile.org).
Periodontists work to prevent and to treat periodontal (gum) disease and oral inflammation. They also are trained in placing and maintaining dental implants. Scaling and root planning are among this specialist’s techniques (perio.org).
Prostodontists restore missing or damaged teeth and jaw structures, which could involve using crowns, dental implants, dentures, porcelain veneers, bridges, and reconstructive dentistry (gotoapro.org).
Other specialists are pediatric dentists who are, in essence, pediatricians of dentistry (aapd.org); dental anesthesiologists, with specialized training, logically, in dental anesthesiology (asdahq.org); and specialists in public health dentistry, who concentrate on the prevention and control of dental disease on a community basis (aaphd.org).

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