What is the Difference Between a Dentist and an Orthodontist?

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Teen girl with parents holding phone and smiling after orthodontic appointment

Orthodontist vs Dentist: Treatments Provided are Different

Dentists and orthodontists are both trained to care for your teeth, but they specialize in various aspects of dental health and offer a variety of different services to their patients.

Dentists undertake considerable training to diagnose, treat, and prevent oral health problems such as tooth decay, gum disease, and oral cancer. They can perform a wide range of dental procedures such as cleanings, fillings, root canals, extractions, and aesthetic dentistry procedures such as teeth whitening. They may also be able to provide basic orthodontic therapy for issues ranging in severity from mild to moderate, such as simple tooth straightening.

Orthodontics is a branch of dentistry that focuses on the examination, prevention, and treatment of dental and facial anomalies such as crooked teeth and jaws. Orthodontists are dental professionals who have received further education and training in the field of orthodontics beyond what they would have received in dental school.

Orthodontists are highly trained experts that can align patients’ teeth and repair a range of bite problems such as overbites, underbites, and crossbites. They use a variety of treatment approaches, like as braces, retainers, and clear aligners, to straighten the teeth and align the jaws.

If you have a complex orthodontic issue or need specialized treatment to correct your bite, it is in your best interest to contact an orthodontist.

They have the knowledge and skills to create a comprehensive treatment plan tailored to your specific needs. A dentist, on the other hand, is the perfect person to see if you need routine dental care to maintain your oral health, treat gum disease and tooth decay, and promote basic oral health.

Young boy in dental chair with mouth retracted for dental procedure

Does it make a difference?

Dentist Training vs Orthodontist Training

Dentists and orthodontists both receive formal education and training in the field of dentistry, but their areas of specialization differ. Here are some key differences in their educational training:

  1. Education: Both dentists and orthodontists are required to complete a degree in dentistry. After completing a bachelor’s degree, they must enroll in a dental school and graduate with a Doctor of Dental Medicine (DMD) or Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS) degree. However, after completing dental school, orthodontists must complete additional specialized training in orthodontics, usually in the form of a residency program.
  2. Residency: While a general dentist may start practicing after completing dental school, an orthodontist must complete a specialized residency program in orthodontics. This usually involves an additional two to three years of education and training, focusing on the diagnosis, prevention, and treatment of dental and facial irregularities.

In summary, the amount of training for dentists is usually 4 years of dental school, usually after years of college.   An orthodontist goes through 4 years of college, 4 years of dental school and an additional 2 to 3 years of advanced training in orthodontic residency. 

Woman contemplating seeing a dentist versus an orthodontist to straighten her teeth

Why See An Orthodontist Instead of a Dentist?

Apart from training, what does an orthodontist do differently?  Most general dentists do not typically analyze diagnostic x-rays to confirm that teeth roots have moved into optimal positions of the dental underlying bone, while an orthodontist does. 

Without careful measurement of bone limitations, assumptions are made that teeth can be moved into healthy positions of alignment.  Those assumptions are sometimes okay for patients with “normal” bone dimensions.  However, assumptions can lead to errors in the treatment of the patient.

The orthodontist is reliant on a specialized x-ray that is traced, measured, and analyzed to confirm the best movement of teeth within bones of bone.  Without this discipline, teeth can be moved outside of the foundation of the bone, which invites bone loss and gum recession.

Nearly 20% of all patients have very thin bone to endure significant orthodontic treatment.  If one happens to be a patient in the 20% thinner bone group (not the 80% with normal bone), there are risks for damage that sometimes doesn’t show up until later in life.  

One of the clues that you could be in the higher risk of thin bone for safe orthodontic treatment is if you have a longer face type.  People with a “square” jaw line that is short often have less risk for recession or bone loss.  Patients who have a longer lower face height (not a square jaw line), may be at higher risk for damage if treatment does not plan around this challenge.  

Your orthodontist sees and measures the risks involved in treatment (see the enclosed x-ray tracings that show the difference of underlying bone boundaries as seen in 2D vs 3D x-rays).  The orthodontist plans around anatomic limitations to get excellent results.  Without training with measuring x-rays to see risk and calculate optimum movements of teeth, results can be compromised – whoever is providing treatment. 

See the x-ray tracings below that show the difference of underlying bone boundaries as seen in 2D vs 3D x-rays.

2D versus a 3D xray of a Folsom patient at Kelleher Orthodontics
Aligner treatment is typically designed by laboratory technicians whose job is only to digitally align teeth – not read x-rays. Orthodontic specialty training prepares practitioners to position roots correctly within the bone, with braces and aligners, for a functional bite and the alignment of teeth.

Compare the 2D x-ray to the 3D x-ray below. Note: the lower front teeth are tipped forward outside of the bone. This can cause recession as shown in the third image.

2D xray commonly taken by dentists is hard to see bone support for orthodontics
3D xray taken by Dr. Kelleher to clearly see bone support for orthodontic treatment
tooth pushed forward out of bone causing major recession of gums during orthodontic treatment with a 2D xray

How to Know Your Doctor is Experienced

When considering experience in orthodontic treatment, there are a few key areas to look at:

Number of cases

Ask the dentist or orthodontist how many orthodontic cases they have handled. A higher number of cases may indicate a greater level of experience and expertise.

Complexity of cases

It’s also important to consider the complexity of cases the professional has treated. A dentist or orthodontist who has experience with more complex cases, such as those involving significant bite issues or multiple orthodontic appliances, may be better equipped to handle your unique needs.

Continuing education

Find out if the dentist or orthodontist regularly participates in continuing education courses and keeps up with the latest advancements in orthodontic treatment. This may indicate a commitment to providing the best possible care to patients.

Before-and-after photos

Many dental and orthodontic practices will showcase before-and-after photos of previous patients to highlight the results they’ve achieved. Look for examples of cases similar to your own and evaluate the results achieved.

Patient reviews and testimonials

Reading reviews and testimonials from previous patients can give you an idea of their overall experience with the practice and the dentist or orthodontist’s expertise.


What About For a Child?

Oral health is just as important for a child as for an adult. Oral care, even orthodontic treatment, can begin as young as 7 years old.

There are several problems in children that may suggest a need for orthodontic intervention:

  1. Crooked or crowded teeth: If a child’s teeth are crowded or crooked, it can affect their ability to clean their teeth properly, leading to an increased risk of cavities, gum disease, and other oral health problems.
  2. Bite issues: Bite issues such as an overbite, underbite, crossbite, or open bite can affect the way a child’s teeth come together, making it difficult to bite and chew properly.
  3. Speech problems: Misaligned teeth or bite issues can also affect a child’s speech, causing difficulty with certain sounds or a lisp.
  4. Breathing problems: Orthodontic issues such as an overbite or underbite can also impact a child’s ability to breathe properly, which can lead to snoring, sleep apnea, and other breathing problems.
  5. Jaw problems: Children with jaw problems such as a narrow jaw or an overdeveloped lower jaw may also benefit from orthodontic intervention to correct the issue.

Early intervention is often recommended for orthodontic problems in children, as it can help prevent more serious problems from developing later on. Some of these problems can even affect future facial growth. If you notice any of these issues in your child, it’s a good idea to schedule a consultation with an orthodontist to determine if treatment is necessary.


Kelleher Orthodontics: Free First Visit

We’re excited to welcome you to your first visit with us! Our top priority is to get to know you and your goals for your smile. We’ll start by taking photographs, a digital scan of your tooth and jaw alignment, a bite registration, and a 3D x-ray. This helps us use state-of-the-art diagnostic technology to create a safe and effective treatment plan that’s customized to your unique needs.

At our practice, we believe that every journey starts with a clear vision. We want to make sure we’re all on the same page, so we can work together towards achieving your dream smile. We’ll offer you a range of options, from the “perfect” approach to slightly less-than-perfect options that may better fit your lifestyle and budget. It’s important to us that you’re informed about all your options.

We want your first visit with us to be a positive experience that leaves you feeling confident in your decision to work with us. So come on in, and let’s get started on your journey toward a healthier, happier smile!

In Folsom, CA call: (916) 985-8420 in Davis, CA, call: (530) 750-9504

About the Author

Dr. Robert Kelleher is a board-certified expert who truly understands that every smile he treats is unique. Having worked at UC Davis Medical Center, Dr. Kelleher has a special focus on helping kids with developmental challenges find their smiles. His dedication goes beyond patient care into the heart of orthodontic innovation—Dr. Kelleher has even patented a device that makes treatment safer and helps avoid unnecessary extractions, aiming for the best possible outcomes for all his patients. When he’s not at the clinic, you might find him sharing insights with fellow orthodontists in the Bay Area or diving into the latest research to keep pushing the field forward. Dr. Kelleher is committed to sharing his passion within his articles because he believes that sharing accurate, firsthand knowledge enhances the understanding and trust between him and his patients.

Learn more about Dr. Kelleher. Read our editorial policy.

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