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Are Dentists and Orthodontists the same?

All Orthodontists are dentists, but not all dentists are orthodontists. When it comes to having your teeth straightened, you’ll probably want to know the difference.

Just like in medicine, there is too much information for one person to know it all. That is why the profession of dentistry, like medicine, is subdivided into primary care dentist and specialists.

All dentists go to college first, usually for four years. From there they attend another four years of dental school. Those that graduate and pass the appropriate didactic and clinical exams to earn a license can practice as dentists. These dentists are called general dentists, general practitioners, GPs, or the term that has become more popular now, Primary Care Dentists.

Dental school is extremely demanding, and students are taught the basics of many different procedures and must successfully complete “minimum requirements” in order to graduate. The stated goal of dental schools is to create what is called a “safe beginner”. Dentists are tasked with learning a tremendous amount of material in four years, and in addition they must learn to perform a tremendous number of surgical procedures. Dentists learn to clean teeth, diagnose cavities and many kinds of oral diseases, do silver fillings, tooth-colored fillings, crowns, bridges, root canals.   They also learn to pull or extract teeth, make complete and partial removable dentures, along with many more procedures. It is truly a lot to learn in a relatively short time.

Within the profession of dentistry, just like in medicine, there are specialists. Specialists have names like Endodontist, Oral Surgeon, Orthodontist, and Pediatric Dentist. These specialists typically graduate in the top 10% of their dental school class, because admission to a residency program is very competitive, with many more dentists wishing to specialize than there are positions in programs. While dental school is 4 years and you must learn all aspects of anatomy, biochemistry, pharmacology, as well as all the different dental procedures listed above, a specialist limits his or her focus to one area of dentistry, like orthodontics.

Specialists like orthodontists spend the next three years or more becoming experts in that one area, training with both academic and private practice specialists. When they complete their residency training, they typically have done more procedures in their one area than a new dental school graduate has done is all areas of dentistry. An orthodontist graduated in the top of his dental school class and has spent thousands and thousands of hours studying and practicing only orthodontics.

Next is where it gets a little confusing… there is nothing to prevent a primary care dentist from doing orthodontics or difficult surgical procedures like removing wisdom teeth. Primary Care or general dentists can choose which procedures they feel comfortable with and which to refer to a specialist. It is possible to graduate from dental school without ever removing wisdom teeth and never putting on a set of braces, but with a dental license, a dentist is allowed to do both. Another example is the use of Invisalign. Although technically any dentist can take a short course and be “certified” by the company to do orthodontics with the Invisalign product, these dentists may have never even moved teeth with braces, which is typically easier to do.

This is not to say that there are not tremendously talented primary care dentists, because there are. They are the best practitioners when it comes to fillings, cleanings, and cosmetic procedures like veneers. However, the best primary care dentists always have a team of specialists that they work with in order to provide their patients the best care. No matter how talented the individual, it would be impossible for a dentist to perform root canals, extraction of wisdom teeth, placing implants, and do orthodontics all as well as a specialist when the majority of their practice is focused on doing crowns, bridges, fillings, and veneers.

Any patient can choose to, and often should consult a specialist when making decisions about their teeth. Below is a short list of the most common dentists and their areas of expertise.

The Difference Between Specialties

Primary Care Dentist: A general dentist is not a specialist, but is able to do any procedure with which he or she is comfortable. They are best for cleanings, checking for cavities, fillings, crowns, bridges, and veneers. A primary care dentist is allowed to do orthodontics, but NOT to call themselves an orthodontist.


Specialists: All specialists first complete the training required of primary care dentists and then must be admitted to and successfully complete a full-time residency that is typically three or more additional years beyond dental school.



Orthodontist: Creating beautiful smiles with Braces, Invisalign, Expanders. Experts in Facial Growth and Jaw Relationships.

Pediatric Dentist: All facets of dentistry related to children and adolescents. Advanced training in sedation, anesthesia, and behavior management of children.

Endodontist: Root canals

Oral Surgeon: Wisdom teeth, extraction of teeth, jaw surgery, placement of implants, removal of tumors and cancer. These dentists also sometimes complete medical school and have M.D. after their names.

Periodontist: treat periodontal disease, bone around the teeth, grafting, and gum surgery.