Picture this: Your tooth is aching and Tylenol isn’t cutting it, so you sit down at the computer to find a dentist. But combing through the search results makes your head start throbbing as much as your tooth. You scroll past endodontists and periodontists, maxillofacial pathologists and oral medicine doctors — and that’s just the first page.
The National Commission on Recognition of Dental Specialities and Certifying Boards recognizes 12 dental specialties, in addition to general dentistry.
Here is a guide to some of the most common dental subspecialties to help you find the right provider for your aches, pains and other dental needs.
General dentists make up around 80% of all practicing dentists. They treat patients of all ages and perform a range of tasks, including diagnosing oral conditions; identifying tooth and gum diseases; removing, restoring and replacing teeth; and performing surgery.
Similar to a general practitioner or family doctor, the general dentist’s job is to oversee a patient’s overall oral health. If you’re suffering from mouth pain or have a concern about your teeth, seeing a general dentist is a good place to start. Your general dentist can help identify what’s happening, talk through your treatment options and make a referral to a specialist if necessary.
Dentists who specialize in orthodontics treat issues of the teeth and jaw. This includes poorly positioned teeth, bite problems and tooth spacing.
Orthodontists use devices like braces and teeth straightening aligners to straighten and move teeth. While orthodontists often work with children and teenagers, they serve adults as well and they can perform jaw surgery to treat issues related to biting, chewing and painful temporomandibular joint disorders (TMJ). Orthodontists can also be involved in the treatment and management of sleep apnea.
Dentists specializing in endodontics are focused on treating and preventing diseases in the dental pulp (connective tissue inside the tooth) and surrounding tissues. Their goal is to do whatever they can to save the natural tooth and prevent the need for a dental implant.
“Endodontists’ main focus of practice is on diseased teeth [and] jaw bone pathology,” says Dr. Ryan M. Jones, DDS, FAGD, of Nashville Restorative Dentistry. They perform a number of treatments and surgeries, including root canals.
In a root canal procedure, an endodontist first administers local anesthesia, then removes the damaged dental pulp through an opening made in the crown of the tooth. They then flush and clean the area and may inject medication into the pulp chamber to clear up any possible infection. Sometimes, antibiotics are necessary after the procedure to treat infection.
In addition to root canals, endodontists also repair perforated teeth, provide pulp therapy to treat tooth decay or damage in children, and perform surgeries on roots and teeth that have been damaged by injuries.
Periodontists diagnose and treat diseases of the gums and bone tissues supporting the teeth. They treat gum disease through both surgical and non-surgical techniques and they also place dental implants. While periodontists have typically been viewed as disease specialists, Jones says the specialty is evolving.
“Many periodontists now have moved beyond just managing disease and maintaining compromised teeth and are now focused on performing procedures to regenerate lost tissue or replace missing teeth,” he says.
Those procedures include gingival grafting to cover exposed tooth roots resulting from gum recession; bone grafting in preparation for implant placements; and sinus lifts for upper back tooth implants, Jones says.
Oral and maxillofacial surgeons
Oral and maxillofacial surgeons perform surgery to address both hard and soft tissue problems in the mouth, face or jaw.
Most patients interact with oral and maxillofacial surgeons when they need to have their wisdom teeth removed. During a wisdom tooth extraction, the surgeon numbs the gums through either local or general anesthesia, then cuts into the gum to gain access to the tooth and bone, removes the tooth and clean the affected area. Sometimes stitches are necessary for healing.
In addition to wisdom tooth extractions, oral and maxillofacial surgeons also perform surgeries to address cleft lip and palate, facial injuries and other conditions.
If your general dentist or a specialist determines that you need surgery, they may call upon a dental anesthesiologist to oversee pain management.
Dental anesthesiologists may also be called in for patients with heightened fear of the dentist or unique healthcare needs that make it difficult to undergo standard dental care. Dental anesthesiologists help alleviate pain and anxiety through local anesthesia, advanced sedation and general anesthesia. Rather than working within their own private practices, most dental anesthesiologists work with other dentists in their practices or within surgery centers, hospitals and educational institutions.
Dental anesthesiologists confer with patients and surgeons determine the best protocol for a patient, monitor their response to anesthesia during their appointment or procedure, and help them recover.
Other dental specialties
Depending on the care you need, here are some of the other dental specialists you might encounter:
- Dental public health specialist: Promotes dental health through community efforts, public education, applied research and program administration.
- Oral and maxillofacial pathologist: Identifies and manages oral conditions and diseases
- Oral and maxillofacial radiologist: Produces and interprets images to diagnose diseases, conditions and disorders in the face, mouth and jaw.
- Oral medicine specialist: Diagnoses and manages oral diseases, disorders and conditions in medically complex patients
- Orofacial pain specialist: Diagnoses, manages and treats pain in the head and neck, including TMJ and neuropathic pain disorders
- Pediatric dentist: Provides preventive oral care and treatment to infants, children and adolescents.
- Prosthodontics specialist: Replaces natural teeth that have fallen out or been removed with appliances like dentures, bridges and implants.