The Impression

What is orthodontics?

Here's everything you need to know about the dental specialty called orthodontics and dentofacial orthopedics.

Jeff Craven
Contributing Writer

Have you ever wondered why you needed to see an orthodontist to get your teeth straightened? Dentists look at teeth too, so why do you need to go to someone else for braces or clear aligners? What is the difference between orthodontist and dentists?

 Dentistry is concerned with all aspects of oral health and conditions such as tooth decay, gum disease and temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorder (although a review by Cochrane, a charity that looks at medical evidence, has said the causes of TMJ are not likely related to teeth [1]).

 But orthodontics is a specialty within the field of dentistry—one that focuses on how teeth are aligned and come together. When your teeth are aligned correctly—looking good both when you smile and when you bite down, it’s called occlusion. On the other hand, malocclusion, or when your teeth don’t come together, is why you get orthodontic treatment.

 Orthodontic problems can be inherited, such as missing teeth (hypodontia), and people in families can have the same structural imperfections in their teeth [2]. Other orthodontic problems are caused over time through accidents, dental disease, mouth breathing, sucking one’s thumb and poor dental hygiene [3].

 Many people also seek out orthodontic treatment to improve their appearance or self-esteem. But does having your teeth straightened improve your health at all?

 There is some evidence from studies that orthodontics improves gum health, but other reviews on the subject have shown there is no link between orthodontic treatment and gum health. However, analyses of self-reported patient outcomes after orthodontic treatment have found that people do say their quality of life improves after treatment. [4][5]

 In short, getting orthodontic treatment—whether it’s braces, clear aligners, or another option—is more likely to improve your appearance, which will also improve your quality of life.


Orthodontist vs. dentist

 So, what is an orthodontist? Ortho is a Greek prefix that means “correct,” and dontic means “tooth,” so an orthodontist is someone who corrects teeth.

 The difference between orthodontists vs. dentists is in specialization. All dentists are orthodontists, but only some dentists go on to specialize in orthodontics.

 Dentists can become orthodontists with specialized training—you can think of it like a doctor getting a degree in medicine, and then specializing in an area like cardiology or endocrinology [6].

 You’d see a dentist for teeth cleanings and teeth whitening, and also for procedures such as a root canal, dental bridge, dental crown or adding a veneer to your teeth. They can also handle gum disease, extract teeth, and may even offer some orthodontic services. Remember: orthodontics is a specialty in dentistry, which means dentists do have some training in this area.

 Dentists can specialize in any number of areas within dentistry, such as endodontics (root canals), periodontics (gum disease), and oral and maxillofacial surgery (face, mouth, and jaw surgery). Orthodontists are dentists who have received additional education in orthodontics, usually through an accredited program. [7] (Fun fact: Candid only works with orthodontists because they’re the specialists in straightening teeth and correcting issues with your bite or jaw.)

 While most people see an orthodontist for braces, they use an array of teeth straightening options for their patients, and also devices for helping them keep teeth straight such as: [8]

-       Clear aligners

-       Removable appliances for moving small numbers of teeth and widening upper/lower arches

-       Functional appliances to reshape the jaw as well as fix teeth shifting

-       Extra-oral devices you wear on your head or face (headgear)

-       Retainers for keeping teeth in place after treatment

 Orthodontists can even help athletes build custom mouthguards for sports, and there is even a special device that opens the airway for a person with sleep apnea. [9]


Let’s get things straight.

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