Occasionally a general dentist will come upon a situation in which they don’t feel qualified to provide adequate treatment. In these situations they’ll refer you to a dental specialist. Dental specialists are people who graduated from dental school and went on to further training that ranges anywhere from 2-6 additional years. There are nine specific dental specialties that are recognized by the American Dental Association . Other countries have a few more or few less recognized specialists.
Recognized Specialties in the United States:
Dental Public Health – These dentists usually have a masters in public health as well as their dental degree and focus on big picture dental and health issues. They often work and teach at dental schools.
Endodontist – These are the root canal specialists. They perform root canals and periapical surgery primarily. Success rates of root canals are much higher on average with an endodontist than a general dentist.
Oral Pathologist – These dentists usually work in hospitals or University systems and examine biopsy tissue samples that check for cancer and other oral disease.
Oral Radiologist – This is another specialty that works primarily in University settings. They are specialists in how all imaging equipment in dentistry works, from simple x-ray machines all the way up to 3D CT scanners and MRI machines. They are also the best qualified to read these scans.
Oral Surgeon – Oral surgeons are best known for extracting teeth (especially wisdom teeth) but are also extremely well qualified to do a wide range of other surgeries in the jaw and midface area. They can handle trauma, cancer, and cases of severe infection as well as certain types of surgeries to realign the jaw. Other than wisdom teeth, their most common procedure is placing dental implants.
Orthodontist – Orthodontists are probably the most well known dental specialists. They specialize in moving teeth with braces and other appliances.
Pediatric Dentist – Pediatric dentists provide dental care to children and are well trained in sedation, behavior management, and dental procedures that are more commonly performed on children.
Periodontist – Periodontists are gum specialists. They handle cases of severe periodontal disease, gum grafting, placing implants, and crown lengthening surgeries.
Prosthodontist – Prosthodontists are specialists in handling cases that are very complex to restore. They do a lot of full mouth rehabilitation and implant based restoration options.
There are some dentist’s that have had additional training in other areas and market themselves as experts in those areas. Some of these should be recognized as specialists but due to politics within organized dentistry, they are not. The challenge with these types of specialties is that some of them don’t have specific requirements as to the training necessary. If you find someone marketing themselves as one of these, pay a little more attention as to the level of their training and experience.
Dental Anesthesiologist – This is the most controversial of all the non-official specialists. This is one that should likely be included in the actual specialists as all programs are administered through Universities/Hospitals, usually as three years of additional training. They have a very specific skill set and can administer anesthesia just as effectively as a medical anesthesiologist. Dental anesthesiology can be especially difficult as many types of sedation require little to no water going down the throat and intubation through the mouth or nose which can make treatment very challenging. Hopefully this specialty will be recognized soon. If someone markets themselves a dental anesthesiologist, you can be pretty sure they are very well qualified to administer any type of sedation safely.
Geriatric Dentistry – These dentist’s focus on the needs of older patients. There is usually an emphasis on managing complex health issues as it relates to dentistry as well as the unique restorative needs of older patients.
Special Needs Dentistry – Patient’s with special needs such as mental retardation (MR), Autism spectrum disorders, Down syndrome, and many other challenges need special treatment and care at a dental office. Traditionally pediatric dentists have filled this role but some people are starting to develop offices that cater specifically to special needs patients.
TMJ, Sleep Dentistry, and Orofacial Pain Specialist – People with TMJ problems, orofacial pain, and who have a need for oral appliance therapy for sleep apnea generally need a dentist who has significant experience making these appliances and managing these types of problems. These types of problems can be very complex and require a wide body of knowledge. Most general dentists simply don’t see these problems on a consistent enough basis to be able to treat difficult cases effectively.
Veterinary Dentistry – Many pets require extractions, cleanings, and root canals. Some veterinarians and dentist’s provide these services for animals.
Lastly there are some titles that dentist’s market themselves under but don’t actually have any specific meaning. Make sure you check into their actual credentials and experience.
Cosmetic dentist – This term generally has no meaning. All general dentist’s are qualified to provide cosmetic care. As with all other areas of dentistry, some dentist’s are far more experienced and can provide a much better service than others. Ask for some photos of their previous work before getting started.
Implant dentist -The people who market themselves as implant dentists can range from those who have taken 12 hour weekend courses and placed a couple of implants total all the way to those who have taken hundreds of hours of continuing education and have placed thousands of implants. Check their experience first.