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What Is an Orthodontist?

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on June 28, 2021

People often associate a perfect smile with good health. It's true — your oral health plays an important role in your overall well-being. Malocclusion, or misaligned teeth, can lead to dental issues, including tooth decay, gum disease, and difficult or painful chewing.

However, not everyone is born with straight teeth. If you have a bad bite or large spaces between your teeth, you may want to consult a dentist specializing in orthodontic care

An orthodontist is a dentist trained to diagnose, prevent, and treat teeth and jaw irregularities. They correct existing conditions and are trained to identify problems that may develop in the future. Orthodontists work with people of all ages, from children to adults. 

What Does an Orthodontist Do?

Orthodontists use fixed and removable dental devices, like braces, retainers, and bands, to change the position of teeth in the mouth. They treat dental abnormalities, including: 

  • Crooked teeth
  • Bite problems, like an overbite or an underbite
  • Crowded teeth, or teeth that are too far apart
  • Jaw misalignment 

The goal of orthodontic care is to improve a patient's bite. Teeth that are straight and evenly spaced will align with opposing teeth in the jaw. A healthy bite ensures you can eat, chew, and speak properly. In the past, seeing an orthodontist was associated with children or teenagers who needed braces. However, orthodontists can correct dental problems at any age.

Education and Training

Orthodontists attend college, dental school, and orthodontic school. After graduation, they spend two or three years in an orthodontic residency program. This additional training is essential because most dental schools offer limited orthodontic instruction. 

Orthodontic residency programs offer intensive, focused instruction for dental specialists. They focus on two disciplines:

  • Orthodontics: how to properly and safely move teeth
  • Dentofacial Orthopedics: how to properly guide development in the teeth, jaw, and face 

Once an orthodontist has completed training, they have the option to become board certified. In the United States, this certification is voluntary. 

Reasons to See an Orthodontist

Misalignment, or malocclusion, is the most common reason people see an orthodontist. It's hereditary and is the result of size differences between the upper and lower jaw, or between the jaw and the teeth. Malocclusion leads to tooth overcrowding, a misshapen jaw, or irregular bite patterns. Malocclusion is usually treated with:

Braces or Dental Appliances

Metal, ceramic, or plastic square bonds are attached to the teeth. A set of wires or springs apply force and move teeth into alignment. Patients with minor malocclusion often use clear braces, called aligners, instead of traditional braces. Some patients may need headgear to help move teeth into alignment with pressure from outside the mouth. 

Surgery

A patient who has a severe underbite or overbite may need corrective surgery to lengthen or shorten the jaw. Orthodontists use wires, surgical screws, or plates to support the jaw bone. Jaw surgery is only used if you are done growing and if less invasive orthodontic treatments have been unsuccessful. 

Correcting a dental malocclusion can:

  • Make biting, chewing, and speaking easier
  • Improve facial symmetry and overall appearance
  • Ease the pain from temporomandibular joint disorders (TMJ)
  • Separate teeth and make them easier to clean, helping to prevent tooth decay, or cavities

What to Expect at the Orthodontist

It's often the dentist who first notices misaligned teeth during a routine exam. If your back teeth don't come together properly, the dentist may suggest you see an orthodontist. During your first orthodontic consultation, you'll likely undergo:

  • An oral exam
  • Photos of your face and smile
  • Dental X-rays
  • Panoramic (360 degree) X-rays of the face and head
  • Impressions to create molds of your teeth

These tests will inform your orthodontist on how to proceed with your treatment and what orthodontic interventions are best for you.

WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES

American Association of Orthodontists: “What is an Orthodontist and Dentofacial Orthopedist?” 

American Association of Orthodontists: “Why the Number of Adults Seeing an Orthodontist is at an All-Time High.”

American Association of Orthodontists: “Surgical Orthodontics.”

American Dental Association: “Orthodontics.” 

Cleveland Clinic: “Braces & Retainers.” 

Journal of International Oral Health: “Dental Caries and its Relationship to Malocclusion in Permanent Dentition Among 12-15 Year Old School Going Children.”

Mayo Clinic: “Jaw surgery.”

The Nemours Foundation: “All About Orthodontia.”

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