How do orthodontics fit in among all the specialties of dentistry?

Edgar Y. Mendieta, DDS
Orthodontics & Dentofacial Orthopedics
An orthodontist has 2-3 years of specialized education beyond dental school and is a specialist at straightening teeth and insuring proper form and function. This is a brief description of what the American Association of Orthodontists website reads. Let me put it into more practical terms. We relate dental structures to the jaws and then in turn relate the jaws to the cranio-facial structures of the patient. There are a number of ways to analyze these dimensions which make the specialty challenging and fun. In addition to analyzing them we as Orthodontist make the diagnosis and put in a plan to achieve and optimum aesthetics, function, and balance. This takes a years to master. An Orthodontist will only practice Orthodontics which is why many agree to see a specialist in Orthodontics when a patient merits treatment for "braces".

To get back to the American Association of Orthodontists take on it:

Orthodontists receive more formal education than dentists to specialize in straightening teeth. Like dentists, orthodontists graduate from dental school. Then, to be an orthodontist, it takes an additional two to three academic years of education in an accredited orthodontic residency program. Orthodontists are dentistry’s specialists in straightening teeth and aligning jaws to create optimal function and form. Orthodontists only practice orthodontics. They treat hundreds of patients a year, drawing on tried-and-true and new orthodontic appliance technologies to get patients to the best results. Orthodontists have knowledge of the full range of orthodontic appliance “tools” -- including braces, clear aligners and other orthodontic devices. They know what to use and when because they work with these tools every day. Orthodontists build on their knowledge of orthodontics through on-going continuing education in orthodontic technology and practice.
Dante A. Gonzales, DMD
Orthodontics & Dentofacial Orthopedics
Orthodontics is the oldest specialty in the field of dentistry. Orthodontics can help improve the occlusion (bite) and the alignment of the teeth. This will help improve and maintain the function of the teeth, and the longevity of the teeth. Orthodontics is the largest of the specialties of dentistry and both children and adults can benefit from orthodontic treatment. Children at the age of 7 should get an orthodontic evaluation to determine how the jaws and teeth are developing. Adults considering any type of major dental work should also get an orthodontic evaluation in order to establish a good foundation of a proper bite and alignment of their teeth.
Stephen P. Simpson, DDS
Orthodontics & Dentofacial Orthopedics

Orthodontics blends seamlessly into the practice of dentistry, whether considered in the context of general dentistry or in coordination with one or several of the other dental specialties. Orthodontic treatment frequently involves a pre-treatment or post-treatment regimen of care by another dental professional, so that the comprehensive dental needs of the individual patient can be satisfied. Orthodontists are accustomed to treating patients with a "team" approach, and recognize that the proper sequencing and coordination of care may be critical to the ultimate outcome and success of the overall treatment plan. Orthodontics may constitute a major or very minimal aspect of any individual patient's treatment, but the importance of the position and alignment of the teeth is often crucial to other aspects of the care rendered. 

In the USA there are nine formal accredited specialties in dentistry:
  • Dental Public Health 
  • Endodontics 
  • Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery 
  • Oral Medicine and Pathology 
  • Oral & Maxillofacial Radiology 
  • Orthodontics and Dentofacial Orthopedics 
  • Pediatric Dentistry 
  • Periodontics 
  • Prosthodontics
Orthodontics was the first specialty of dentistry and is concerned with the study and treatmen of malocclusions  (improper bites), which may be a result of tooth irregularity, disproportinate jaw relationships, or both. Orthodontic treatment can focus on dental displacement only, or can deal with the control and modification of facial growth. In the latter case it is better defined as "dentofacial orthopedics". Orthodontic treatment can be carried out for purely cosmetic reasons with regards to improving the general appearance of patients' teeth, or can be part of reconstructing a patient’s face because of genetic disease or trauma.

Orthodontists, like the other specialties, historically work on referrals from general dentists and other health care providers, and work with them in providing orthodontic care and communicating back with them on their patients' progress. Today there are a large number of patients that seek orthodontic care directly. 
Dan Jenkins
Orthodontics is the specialty in dentistry that is involved in aligning the teeth in a proper relationship. While many general dentists provide orthodontic services, the orthodontists are those dentists who specialize in providing only orthodontics after they have received 2 to 3 years of residency training in orthodontics.
Orthodontics is the oldest most well established sub-specialty in Dentistry or Dental Medicine and Surgery. Most early orthodontic specialty training programs much like other medical specialties were apprenticeships where interested clinicians would study with a master clinician that had a following. It was not until the 1960’s that formal specialty training in orthodontics became widespread among dental schools in the United States. To formally train as a specialist in orthodontics in the United States, one is required to complete two to three years of additional full time training at an CODA approved residency program after completing a doctorate in dental surgery (DDS) or dental medicine (DMD); the DDS or DMD degree require a four year full time curriculum equivalent which is modeled after the medical doctorate (MD) degree with two years of sciences and two years of clinical practice. The specialty changed its formal name to “orthodontics and dentofacial orthopedics” in the 1980’s to emphasize the overall effects of the orthodontic treatment on the skeletal imbalances of the face and jaws.  
Orthodontics as a dental specialty, and the use of orthodontic appliances, have been in existence even before the existence of modern dentistry. In fact, orthodontic techniques can be traced back over three millenia to the Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Roman, and even Mayan cultures using various primitive materials to treat maloccusions (bad bite).

Today, orthodontics remains an essential dental specialty, especially in the field of growth and human development. Malocclusion, can be debilitating to proper health and function, in addition to being psychologically and emotionally debilitating to a person's speech and appearance.

Orthodontics should always be considered in the process of treating a patient. Many times, the scope of restorative and cosmetic dentistry can be minimized, and more conservative care rendered, when orthodontic treatment is incorporated in the treatment plan. 
Orthodontics plays an critical part in helping people keep their teeth for a lifetime. Often other dental problems, such as bone and gum disease, jaw muscle and joint pain, even cavities and the need for root canals can be worsened when teeth are too crowded to keep clean or the bite is way off.  When dentists are helping people recover from serious dental disease or just making choices to have a more attractive smile, using orthodontics as part of the solution very often makes achieving the best of health more predictable.

Orthodontics can be done by dentists with specialized training or by general dentists with advanced training.
Gregory J. Jorgensen, DMD
Orthodontics & Dentofacial Orthopedics
Orthodontics is the specialty branch of dentistry that deals specifically with the alignment of the teeth and jaws. It used to be that when you'd think "orthodontist" you would automatically think "braces." Orthodontists now use a combination of growth modification, surgery, aligners, and yes braces to give you a beautiful smile that is healthier and will last a lifetime.

The longer I practice general dentistry (24 years), the more excited I become about the great potential of orthodontics to help people of any age keep their teeth functioning well and looking good for a lifetime. For children who are developing, orthodontists can shape the bones of the face and jaws to allow the teeth and supporting structures to grow into ideal positions. Orthodontists can help people who have worn or shifted teeth regain a beautiful smile and improved chewing. Orthodontists can help grow bone (avoiding bone grafting surgery in some cases) to support dental implants. There are many more areas where orthodontists play a key role in dentistry. If you ever have an orthodontic question, ask your dentist for a referral for a consultation (or your dentist may also be skilled in orthodontic care). 

Great question since many dentists don't understand the relationship. Dental Schools notoriously and shamefully do not teach orthodontics to their dental students. Only with advanced education can a dentist learn orthodontics.
I became a much better diagnostician and clinician after learning orthodontics. Now I see what I had been missing with regards to TMJ and occlusion (bite) issues.

Teeth were made a certain way for a very good reason. They function best when they are aligned properly. They chew more efficiently and make it easier to maintain healthy gums. Unfortunately, many dentists think they can just realign teeth with caps and porcelain veneers. The results can be problematic if the forces are not dealt with properly.

Properly done orthodontics can contribute to longer lasting as well as more esthetic smiles and bites. I think the best general dentists know a lot about the various specialties and the best specialists know a lot about general dentistry.
There are nine specialties in dentistry. Orthodontics is by far the largest specialty for dentists, since teeth straightening with braces is a very common and accepted practice in the United States. Another large practice specialty are the oral and maxillofacial surgeons, who perform procedures and surgery in the mouth. There is also pediatric dentistry, which specializes in attending to the needs of younger and older children and any children with special needs. Periodontology focuses on procedures and cleanings of the gums and supporting bones. The specialty of prosthodontists focuses on the replacement of teeth using crowns, bridges, or dentures. Endodontics specializes in procedures on the inside of teeth, typically root canals. Oral pathology is another specialty in dentistry that focuses on diagnosing diseases of the mouth. Oral radiology specializes in diagnosing dental problems, but these professionals are experts in using imagery like X-rays and computed tomography (CT). Public health dentistry is another specialty that focuses on dental diseases among populations.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.