What Is an Orthodontist?

An orthodontist diagnoses overbites, occlusions, misaligned teeth and jaws, and overcrowded mouths. After the diagnosis, the orthodontist tries to solve any issues they discover. If left untreated, overbites, underbites, open bites, and crossbites are all problems that will grow worse over time. An orthodontist is an expert who repairs these conditions.

Orthodontists specialize in the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of malocclusions, known as improper bites, or how the teeth meet when a patient bites down such as open bite, crossbite, overbite, and underbite. They also focus on tooth placement and alignment as well as jaw irregularities.

An orthodontist provides expert diagnosis and treatment to prevent or correct misaligned teeth and jaws, which can include the application of braces, retainers, or other corrective devices to realign teeth. In some cases where a severe malocclusion, or an improper bite, is diagnosed the patient may also require surgery to correct tooth alignment.

Reasons for needing orthodontics can include heredity dental problems, growth or malformation of the jaws, or overcrowding of teeth. Orthodontics might also be the course of treatment as a result of tooth loss or tooth decay and injury that affects the structure of the mouth.

Orthodontists examine patient x-rays and photos taken of the patient’s bite externally to determine the severity of the malocclusion and decide upon the most suitable form of treatment. Patients receiving orthodontic care range from those seeking treatment for not only health reasons but also for cosmetic reasons. Other health problems can occur as a result of improper jaw and teeth alignment and can range from breathing problems such as snoring and sleep apnea to affecting the way a patient speaks.

Orthodontists use a range of different techniques depending on the patient’s diagnosis after assessing X-rays of the teeth and jaw and using molds to assess the treatment from start to completion.

What Does an Orthodontist Do?

Orthodontists use fixed and removable dental devices, like braces, retainers, and bands, to change the position of teeth in the mouth. They treat dental abnormalities, including: 

  • Crooked teeth
  • Bite problems, like an overbite or an underbite
  • Crowded teeth, or teeth that are too far apart
  • Jaw misalignment 

The goal of orthodontic care is to improve a patient’s bite. Teeth that are straight and evenly spaced will align with opposing teeth in the jaw. A healthy bite ensures you can eat, chew, and speak properly. In the past, seeing an orthodontist was associated with children or teenagers who needed braces. However, orthodontists can correct dental problems at any age.

Education and Training

Orthodontists attend college, dental school, and orthodontic school. After graduation, they spend two or three years in an orthodontic residency program. This additional training is essential because most dental schools offer limited orthodontic instruction. 

Orthodontic residency programs offer intensive, focused instruction for dental specialists. They focus on two disciplines:

  • Orthodontics: how to properly and safely move teeth
  • Dentofacial Orthopedics: how to properly guide development in the teeth, jaw, and face 

Once an orthodontist has completed training, they have the option to become board certified. In the United States, this certification is voluntary. 

Reasons to See an Orthodontist

Misalignment, or malocclusion, is the most common reason people see an orthodontist. It’s hereditary and is the result of size differences between the upper and lower jaw, or between the jaw and the teeth. Malocclusion leads to tooth overcrowding, a misshapen jaw, or irregular bite patterns. Malocclusion is usually treated with:

Braces or Dental Appliances

Metal, ceramic, or plastic square bonds are attached to the teeth. A set of wires or springs apply force and move teeth into alignment. Patients with minor malocclusion often use clear braces, called aligners, instead of traditional braces. Some patients may need headgear to help move teeth into alignment with pressure from outside the mouth. 

Surgery

A patient who has a severe underbite or overbite may need corrective surgery to lengthen or shorten the jaw. Orthodontists use wires, surgical screws, or plates to support the jaw bone. Jaw surgery is only used if you are done growing and if less invasive orthodontic treatments have been unsuccessful. 

Correcting a dental malocclusion can:

  • Make biting, chewing, and speaking easier
  • Improve facial symmetry and overall appearance
  • Ease the pain from temporomandibular joint disorders (TMJ)
  • Separate teeth and make them easier to clean, helping to prevent tooth decay or cavities

What to Expect at the Orthodontist

It’s often the dentist who first notices misaligned teeth during a routine exam. If your back teeth don’t come together properly, the dentist may suggest you see an orthodontist. During your first orthodontic consultation, you’ll likely undergo:

  • An oral exam
  • Photos of your face and smile
  • Dental X-rays
  • Panoramic (360 degrees) X-rays of the face and head
  • Impressions to create molds of your teeth

These tests will inform your orthodontist on how to proceed with your treatment and what orthodontic interventions are best for you.

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