The Real Difference Between a Dentist and an Orthodontist

open-mouthed boy lying in the dental chair while the orthodontist is arranging the braces on his teeth

Both dentists and orthodontists work to improve your smile and promote better oral health. However, both of them offer different treatments to achieve this goal.

Dentists are trained doctors who focus on the health of your teeth, gums, tongue, and mouth. In contrast, an orthodontist specializes in fixing teeth and jaw misalignment. A dentist will help with cavities or oral infections, whereas an orthodontist will help correct malocclusions and TMD.

It’s important to know what type of doctor specializes in what sort of problems. As such, I’ve put together a detailed read going over the difference between a dentist and an orthodontist. This should give you a clear idea of whether you should visit a dentist or an orthodontist depending on your symptoms.

The Differences Between a Dentist vs. Orthodontist

To help you better understand dentists and orthodontists, I’ve prepared a table comparing them side by side. I’ve gone over the treatments offered when you should visit them, what training they have, and the average cost of treatment.

Treatments OfferedDiagnosis and treatment of general oral problems like cavities, tooth loss, gum diseases, etc.Diagnosis and treatment of problems related to tooth and jaw alignment like malocclusion, TMD, etc.
When To VisitIf you notice any oral health problems related to your tooth, gum, or tongueIf you notice misalignment in your teeth or jaw
TrainingDental School (4 years)Dental School (4 years) + Orthodontic Residency Program (2-3 years)
Average Treatment CostComparatively lessMost treatments covered by general dental insuranceComparatively moreYou may need a reference letter from your dentist to get insurance coverage over your orthodontic treatment

Let’s discuss these differences in more detail:

Young blond Caucasian female opening her mouth while African-American ethnic dentist in white latex gloves check condition of her teeth

Treatments Offered 

A dentist helps you diagnose and treat general oral health problems. 

Here’s a list of the most common treatments offered by a dentist:

An orthodontist works in the prevention and treatment of teeth and jaw misalignment.

Here’s a list of the most common treatment options offered by an orthodontist:

  • Ensure proper growth of jawline and teeth structure in children
  • Treat malocclusion — misalignment in teeth and jaw, which results in a poor bite
  • Teeth straightening surgery
  • Installation and removal of dental appliances like braces, space maintainers, retainers, clear aligners, lip and cheek bumpers, palatal expanders, orthodontic headgear, Herbst appliances, etc.

Who To Visit and When

Your dentist is similar to your family doctor and is the person you should visit if you notice any tooth or gum problems.

Here’s a list highlighting some of the most common oral problems a dentist can help diagnose and treat:

  • Tooth decay or cavities
  • Toothache
  • Chipped or cracked tooth
  • Plaque buildup
  • Tooth discoloration
  • Gum diseases — pain, bleeding, unusual gum growth, etc.
  • Oral thrush

It’s worth noting that even if you don’t notice any oral problems, you should still visit your dentist 2 times a year. This will help prevent any oral issues before it wreaks havoc in your mouth.

Now orthodontists are like specialist doctors with a keen interest in the proper alignment of your teeth and jaws.

You’ll need to visit an orthodontist if you notice any of the following symptoms:

  • Tooth misalignment
  • Crowded tooth
  • Malocclusion — overbite, underbite, or crossbite
  • Unnatural space between teeth, especially if you have food particles lodged in the space
  • Lockjaw
  • Temporomandibular disorder
  • Speech impediment from tooth placement

The American Association of Orthodontics also recommends that children get checked by an orthodontist before the age of 7 or around the time they start losing their baby teeth. This helps the orthodontist prevent any oral structural problems the child may have and treat them early on.

It’s also worth pointing out that some people believe that you need a referral from a dentist before you see an orthodontist. 

Now, although it’s true that dentists will refer patients to orthodontists if they need specialized treatment, however, you’re free to visit an orthodontist without any referral if you notice any of the symptoms cited above.

Medical Schooling and Training

To become a dentist, a person must join a dental school, which generally requires a bachelor’s degree or a pre-medical degree. 

Three young happy future dentistry doctors on classes at school

Dental school is a 4-year-long doctoral program that offers extensive training and practice on diagnosing and treating problems related to teeth, gums, and tongue.

The first and second years in dental school will follow a mixture of classroom study and lab work. Completing this, in the next two years, the students go through dental residency where they work under the supervision of licensed dentists treating actual patients and dealing with real-life cases.

At the end of the course, all students must take a comprehensive examination, passing which they become a certified dentist qualified to diagnose and offer dental treatment to patients.

Orthodontists also need to complete similar medical training and become certified dentists. After that, instead of starting their practice, they’ll join another residency program for orthodontics. Here they’ll learn about biomaterials, biomechanics, engineering, and physiology related to a specific movement of teeth and jaw. This is generally 2-3 years long.

As such, orthodontists spend 2-3 years more in medical school than regular dentists.

In the end, after properly qualifying for the program and getting their board certification, they’ll become qualified to start their orthodontic practice.

As such, all orthodontists are licensed dentists, but not all dentists are certified to offer orthodontic treatment.

Average Cost of Treatments

Dentists offer a wide range of services, starting from regular dental checkups to crown and bridge implantations. We have a section on this website dedicated exclusively to dental costs, which you may want to check out and use a resource.

Here’s another great resource from CostHelper Health showcasing the varying costs of dental work.

According to them, a regular office visit will cost you somewhere around $50-350, whereas routine teeth cleaning is generally priced between $70-200.

More complicated procedures like root canal treatments cost $300-1,500. And if you’re looking for a complete full-mouth reconstruction, charges can climb up to $15,000-80,000.

That said, maintaining proper dental hygiene and visiting the dentist two times a year will ensure optimal oral health, and save you from needing these expensive treatments.

Orthodontic treatments are generally even more complex than dental work. As a result, they’re often on the more expensive side.

According to the latest survey conducted by the American Dental Association, the average cost of a comprehensive orthodontic treatment, including braces, will cost around $5,000-6,000. Whereas the average cost of braces is about $3,000-10,000.

Now, seeing these high numbers, you might be wondering about insurance options.

Dental insurance will help you save a lot on your dental work. However, not all orthodontic care is covered by insurance. And even if it’s covered, most insurance companies require that you show a referral from a dentist before they pay for your visit to an orthodontist.

This is why you should visit orthodontists from an early age to prevent any tooth misalignments. 

Remember, prevention is cheaper than cure.

Key Takeaways

The difference between a dentist and an orthodontist is how they take care of their patients’ oral health.

A dentist is a doctor concerned with diagnosing and treating general oral problems. They can help treat cavities, gum disease, chipped/cracked teeth, and so on. 

An orthodontist is a specially trained dentist who has gone to dental school and completed 2-3 years of orthodontics residency. These doctors specialize in the early diagnosis and correction of teeth and jaw misalignments. If you have crooked teeth, overbites, underbites, or TMD, an orthodontist can help fix these problems.

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