When you need a dentist, usually that is all you need to know. Unlike other fields of medicine, the needs of the public are best served when the majority of dentists devote themselves to the practice of general dentistry. In some instances, your family dentist will refer you to a specialized dentist to care for a specific condition that you may have. Your family dentist is the authority on your run of the mill tooth decay, gingivitis, and biannual cleanings. The specialists support your family dentist by offering advanced dental care in a narrow scope of conditions.
These areas of dentistry require additional knowledge and skills beyond the four years of general dental school training. If the dentist enrolls in additional postgraduate study, he/she can become a specialist. There are several areas of dental specialties.
Oral and maxillofacial surgeons (OMS) specialize in the broad spectrum of diseases and defects in the maxillofacial region, face, jaws, head and neck. Oral and maxillofacial dentists usually have a degree in medicine, and the specialty is a logical extension of that discipline. They specialize in the diagnosis and treatment of cysts, tumors, cleft lip, cleft palate, craniosynostosis, and TMJ disorders. They also specialize in the surgery required to correct severe bite deformities, which do not respond to retainers and other noninvasive treatments.
Orthodontists specialize in the correction of tooth placement, usually through braces. Orthodontists specialize in the long-term growth, alignment, and design of the mouth and the corrective appliances that facilitate normal growth. Periodontists are concerned with gums, the diseases that adversely affect the gum (periodontitis and gingivitis), and maintaining healthy function of the gums. When a patient's gum disease progresses to the point where surgery is necessary, the general dentist will refer the patient to a Periodontist.
Prosthodontics is the specialty of dentistry that focuses on the restoring the mouth to its natural state by the use of prosthetic devices such as dentures and dental implants. While a general dentist is qualified to perform a portion of these services, the Prosthodontic dentist works with more severe cases, which require surgery, accompanied by dentures or other dental appliances.
An Endodontist specializes in root canals and other diseases that affect the pulp (the soft tissue of the tooth). A general dentist may perform a root canal, but if it later develops an abscess in the gum, the Endodontist will take over from there.
An Oral Pathologist specializes in the diseases of the mouth and face. They rely on clinical exams, rather than visual exams. For example, if the patient has a bacterial growth, he will be referred to an Oral Pathologist. The Oral Pathologist will take samples of the tissue, have them examined at a laboratory, and then determine a course of action.
Pediatric dentists specialize in dental treatment for children and teens. They go beyond the general dentist as they are well versed on childhood diseases that affect the teeth and gums. As a pediatrician specializes in a growing child, the Pediatric dentist specializes in the growth of a child's mouth.
Your family dentist will determine when you need to see one of these specialists. If you are in need of a specialist, you family dentist will refer you to one that he/she trusts and has a good working relationship with. The specialist and your family dentist will work as a team to provide you with the best care possible.