Choosing between seeing a dentist and an orthodontist is all about acknowledging the level of expertise that may be required for your treatment.
What is a dentist?
A dentist has 5 years of full-time study in general dentistry and is an expert in oral health care. Unfortunately, the undergraduate dental curriculum cannot cover various aspects in depth compared with the programmes that dental specialists in various disciplines do. You need to see a dentist if you have toothache, if you have issues like bleeding gums, or for a general check-up to keep your teeth strong and healthy, although regulations allow dentists to carry out many other procedures.
A dentist will often offer many other services such as teeth whitening, veneers, crowns, orthodontics or even implants. These additional services offered by a dentist can make it tough to decide if a dentist or a specialist orthodontist is the right person to be seeing to straighten your teeth.
An easy way to make sense of this is to think of your dentist like a family doctor. The family doctor is highly skilled in a wide range of health conditions, but when it comes to a patient needing specialised treatment for a specific condition, the family doctor will refer the patient to a specialist. Dentistry is similar in this regard. If you need for example, to correct an overbite, stop teeth from overlapping, close gaps between teeth or any issue that requires the teeth to be moved or growth modification, it would be to your advantage to consult a specialist orthodontist, who has 3 to 4 years of full-time additional specialist training in this field after having qualified as a dentist.
Many are unlikely to be comfortable with your family doctor offering specialised medical treatment and should therefore give similar consideration to consulting a specialist for orthodontic treatment.
What is an orthodontist?
An orthodontist is a dentist who has studied full-time for at least a further 3 to 4 years to specialise in orthodontics, facial growth and development, biology and biomechanics. They hold a General Dental Degree and a Specialist Orthodontic Degree which is registrable with the regulatory authority, the HPCSA (Health Professions Council of South Africa). Many short courses in orthodontics are held to upskill dentists interested in orthodontics, but these cannot be equated with a specialist qualification and specifically are not registrable with the HPCSA. All orthodontists are dentists but few dentists go on to specialise and become orthodontists.
Dentists and orthodontists work side by side
Most often it is your dentist who will notice your need for orthodontic treatment and refer you to an orthodontist. Likewise, wearing braces makes it more challenging to keep your teeth clean and healthy. Your orthodontist will often refer you back to your dentist to keep your oral health 100% for the duration of your treatment. In this way, a dentist and an orthodontist work as a team to get you the best result possible. But each fulfil different roles.
When should you see an orthodontist?
- If you have crooked teeth that you are concerned about. This could be a functional or aesthetic concern.
- If your dentist refers you to an orthodontist due to an issue they feel needs a specialist’s opinion.
- If you have a jaw abnormality, possibly from birth, or maybe as a result of a car or sporting accident.
- If you have problems with your bite. Perhaps you can’t chew properly or your top and bottom teeth do not line up correctly.
- If you are concerned that there is not sufficient space for the permanent teeth developing in your child’s mouth.
Can an orthodontist also attend to my oral health?
While an orthodontist is a qualified dentist, once they qualify and begin to practise as an orthodontist, they are required to stop offering general dentistry services. Your orthodontist will pay attention to your oral health during each consultation and if they spot something of concern, will refer you to your dentist. An orthodontist visit does not replace a visit to your dentist, and you should visit your dentist at least every 6 months for a check-up.