The Difference Between Dentists and Orthodontists

Dentists & Orthodontists are both doctors of dentistry with similar educational backgrounds but different specialties & treatments. Learn more about the differences between these two types of doctors & when it's best to visit each.

The Difference Between Dentists and Orthodontists

Dentists and orthodontists are two types of doctors who have extensive experience diagnosing and treating oral health conditions. Both dentists and orthodontists complete four years of dental school after earning their bachelor's degree, and both are doctors of dentistry (with a DDS or its equivalent in DMD). The main similarity between a dentist and an orthodontist is that both focus on oral care. An orthodontist can work in a dental office and provide the same care as a dentist.

If you're looking for a dentist, you may notice that while most appear on the list with a “DDS”, some may be listed as “DMD”. Both mean the same thing: your dentist graduated from an accredited dental school. The DDS (Doctor of Dental Surgery) and the DMD (Doctor of Medicine in Dentistry or Doctor of Dental Medicine) are the same degrees. Dentists who have a DMD or a DDS have the same education.

It's up to universities to determine which degree is awarded, but both degrees use the same curriculum requirements. You can choose to practice as a general dentist or dedicate yourself to a specialty such as orthodontics, which requires additional training, explains the California Association of Orthodontists (CAO). Approximately 6 percent of dentists are orthodontists. Orthodontic courses go beyond basic dental training and have a more specific focus.

Additional education includes a two-year or three-year residency and more than 4,800 hours of orthodontic training. An orthodontist is a licensed dentist who specializes in improving dental defects, such as overcrowded teeth, crooked teeth, and excessive or insufficient bites. To become an orthodontist, a dentist must complete at least two additional years of courses specific to the field of orthodontics. An orthodontist evaluates your bite to determine the best solution for your needs, such as braces.

A dentist can refer patients to their preferred orthodontist if it is determined that additional oral care is needed beyond the scope of general dentistry. While a dentist may be trained to provide orthodontic care in addition to extractions, temporomandibular joint treatments and fillings, entrusting your smile to an orthodontist can better balance the different procedures you need. Orthodontists typically specialize in aligning teeth and jaws, while dentists can help patients achieve a cleaner, healthier smile through cleanings, x-rays, and even surgery. Your dentist must complete 8 years of higher education, while your orthodontist must complete 10 or 11 years to become a specialist.

Additional graduate training is required to become a dental specialist, such as an orthodontist, periodontist, or oral and maxillofacial surgeon. So if you need dental treatment, should you call an orthodontist or dentist? If you have a toothache or suspect that you might have developed a cavity, see your general dentist for a diagnosis. To learn more about the difference between dentists and orthodontists, or to schedule an initial consultation with doctors, the American Orthodontic Association recommends that children visit an orthodontist for a checkup no later than 7 years old. Orthodontists have many tools at their disposal to help them correctly align their teeth and jaws, including traditional braces, lingual braces, and transparent aligners, among other orthodontic appliances.