What Is an Orthodontist?

Medically Reviewed by Carol DerSarkissian, MD on July 10, 2023
4 min read

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.

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.

But 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.

Orthodontists use fixed and removable dental devices, like braces, retainers, and bands, to change the position of teeth in your mouth. Orthodontic treatment is for 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 treatment is to improve your bite. Teeth that are straight and evenly spaced will align with opposing teeth in your jaw. A healthy bite ensures you can eat, chew, and speak properly. While you might think of orthodontists as mainly for children or teenagers who need braces, they can correct dental problems at any age.

Orthodontist vs. Dentist

Orthodontists attend college, dental school, and orthodontic school. After graduation, they spend 2 or 3 years in an orthodontic residency program. This additional training is essential because most dental schools offer limited orthodontic instruction. All orthodontists are dentists, but not all dentists are orthodontists.

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

  • 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 U.S., this certification is voluntary.

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

Braces or dental appliances

Your orthodontist attaches metal, ceramic, or plastic square bonds to your teeth. A set of wires or springs apply force and move your teeth into alignment. If you have only minor malocclusion, you may be able to use clear braces, called aligners, instead of traditional braces. Some people need a headgear to help move teeth into line with pressure from outside the mouth.

After braces or aligners, you'll need to wear a retainer. A retainer is a custom device that keeps your teeth in place.

Palate expanders help widen your upper jaw. They're most often used on children. They can create extra space in the mouth without having to pull teeth.

Orthognathic surgery

If you have a serious underbite or overbite, you might need orthognathic surgery (also called orthodontic surgery) to lengthen or shorten your jaw. Orthodontists use wires, surgical screws, or plates to support your jaw bone. You get jaw surgery only if you're done growing and other orthodontic treatments haven't worked.

You may need to see an orthodontist if you have:

  • Crowding or not enough room for all of your teeth
  • Overbite, when your upper teeth come over your bottom teeth
  • Underbite, when your bottom teeth are too far forward
  • Spacing or issues with gaps
  • Crossbite, which is when your upper teeth fit behind your bottom teeth when your mouth is closed
  • Open bite or a vertical gap between your front bottom and upper teeth
  • Misplaced midline, when the center of your bottom and upper teeth don't line up

Correcting a dental malocclusion can:

  • Make biting, chewing, and speaking easier
  • Improve the symmetry of our face and your overall appearance
  • Ease pain from temporomandibular joint disorders
  • Separate your teeth and make them easier to clean, helping prevent tooth decay or cavities

It's often a 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 have:

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

These tests will help your orthodontist know how to proceed with your treatment.

An orthodontist is a dentist who's had training to treat your teeth and jaw. They correct conditions such as crowding and overbites but are also trained to identify problems that may develop in the future. Orthodontists may perform surgery, exams,X-rays, and more to help you attain a more comfortable, healthier smile.

  • Do orthodontists repair teeth?

An orthodontist is focused on your bite, so something like a chipped tooth would be handled by a dentist.

  • What is the difference between a dentist and an orthodontist?

Orthodontists are dentists but not all dentists are orthodontists. Orthodontists are focused on your bite, or the way your teeth fit together, and the straightness of your teeth.

  • Can an orthodontist remove wisdom teeth?

An oral surgeon will typically remove your wisdom teeth.

  • Does an orthodontist do implants?

Orthodontists don't usually do implants because they do not have orthodontic devices.