The mouth is a complicated place, full of teeth, tissues, and tendons that all need attention. For some, bi-annual visits to the dentist to maintain good oral health provides all the attention the mouth needs. For many others, good oral health will eventually include orthodontics.
What is orthodontics?
Orthodontics is a specialized field of dentistry that focuses on straightening teeth. Your orthodontist is also a specialist in issues related to the alignment of your teeth in relation to the jaw (also known as the bite).
How does someone become an orthodontist?
In addition to completing dental school, an orthodontist will continue their training with a post-doctoral degree. All told, your orthodontist has at least ten years of secondary schooling. This includes (at a minimum) four years of undergraduate study, four years of graduate study, and two years of post-graduate study.
Most dental programs do not require any specific major in undergraduate programs, but there are benefits to taking a science-heavy course load. Most dental schools require specific courses. Students who enter without them will need to take them in dental school before they can begin their regular study.
After undergraduate work, students interested in orthodontics will then progress to graduate work, earning either a Doctor of Dental Surgery (D.D.S.) or a Doctor of Dental Medicine (D.M.D.) degree. In the last two years of their four-year program, students will complete a clinical rotation.
For dentists interested in orthodontics, their study continues in an accredited post-doctoral orthodontist’s specialty program, where they will earn a Master of Science degree in orthodontics. These programs may take up to three years to complete and include classwork, research, and a clinical rotation.
All prospective dentists and orthodontists must pass state licensing exams as well as National Board Dental Examinations. Orthodontists must have a license in their area of specialization. The American Board of Orthodontics also issues certifications for orthodontists.
What does an orthodontist do?
Orthodontists are primarily responsible for diagnosing and correcting issues dealing with the bite (malocclusions). To do this, their most visible calling card is traditional braces, but an orthodontist might also use:
- Invisalign clear aligners
- Corrective headgear
- Fixed appliances (e.g., palate expanders)
- Rubber bands (for midline shift)
Part of the job of an orthodontist is to determine how severe the correction is. They then make the treatment plan as effective and efficient as possible. This means monitoring the patient’s treatment (e.g., braces, palate expanders), tracking their progress and making needed adjustments, and removing the treatment when complete. Regular checkups to the orthodontist are necessary to make sure that retainers and any other prescribed appliances are being used properly.
For children, there is some debate as to whether or not braces should be applied to baby teeth. In some cases, an orthodontist will apply braces for a period of time during elementary school, remove them for a couple years, and then reapply in middle school. Every person’s needs are different. Your orthodontist is there to make sure you get care that is tailored to your specific needs.
The field of orthodontics goes beyond a mouth full of metal. Many orthodontists work closely with primary care physicians in the diagnosis of medical issues including:
- Temporomandibular joint disorder (TMJ)
- Facial nerve pain
- Sleep apnea
- Speech impediments
When these issues require surgery, an orthodontist will refer a patient to an oral surgeon. Before and after surgery, orthodontists work closely with