Definition and Overview

A dentist is a medical practitioner who specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of problems that affect teeth, gums, and the surrounding maxillofacial structure. They are also responsible for providing cleaning and preventative maintenance services, as well as instructions on the proper maintenance of teeth and gums.

To achieve these goals, dentists routinely perform examinations, take x-ray scans, diagnose diseases, and prescribe possible treatments. They also conduct oral surgical procedures and prescribe medications for the treatment of dental problems, relief of symptoms, and prevention of infection. Due to the use of anesthetics in several dental procedures, dentists also train in the administration of general anesthesia.

Sub-Specialties of Dentistry

Dentists also obtain training in several sub-specialties, such as:

  • Endodontics – Also known as root canal therapy, this refers to the study, diagnosis, and treatment of diseases that affect the dental pulp.

  • Oral and Maxillofacial Dentist – Dentists who specialize in oral and maxillofacial dentistry fall into three different types: oral and maxillofacial pathologists, radiologists, and surgeons.

  • Orthodontics – Known as one of the most popular sub-specialties of dentistry, orthodontics refer to dentists who specialize in correcting the positioning and alignment of teeth. Their main method is the use of braces to gradually guide teeth to their correct positions.

  • Periodontics – This refers to the study and treatment of diseases affecting the gums. One of the most common procedures offered under periodontal dental care is the placement of dental implants, which are implanted through the gums and into the jawbone.

  • Pediatric Dentistry – Formerly known as pedodontics, pediatric dentistry performs all the responsibilities and functions of the dentist to young patients.

  • Prosthodontics – This is a wide-encompassing sub-specialty, with many of its specific treatment methods recognized as some of the most sought after dental treatments available. Prosthodontics refers to the placement of dentures and bridges.

The Dental Team

Dentists often work with assistants, a team of dental care professionals that include the following:

  • Dental assistants – Dental assistants provide assistance to the dentist while carrying out a patient’s treatment plan. Their responsibilities include sterilizing dental instruments, prepping patients, passing instruments to the dentist during a procedure, operating suction devices, taking dental impressions, and several others.

  • Dental Hygienists – Dental hygienists often work alongside dentists or as part of a whole dental care team, although they are qualified to start their own private or independent practice. They are focused not only on the treatment of oral diseases but also in their prevention.

  • Dental Technicians – Sometimes called a dental technologist, a dental technician’s role is to create custom made dental appliances based on the prescription and impressions provided by a dentist. They are responsible for making four major types of dental appliances, such as fixed, removable, and maxillofacial prosthesis, as well as orthodontics. Fixed prosthetic devices used in dental care include crowns, bridges, and dental implants, while removable devices include dentures. Orthodontic devices include braces, aligners, and mouth guards.

  • Dental Therapist – Dental therapists are dentists who focus on and perform preventative care services, under the supervision of a dentist. Dental therapists often take care of the oral health of pediatric patients to help them maintain good oral hygiene from an early age. They are the ones who commonly conduct comprehensive dental exams, take dental x-rays, provide diet advice and explain the effect of a proper diet on oral hygiene, and perform cleaning services such as the removal of dental caries. They also administer sealants and fluoride therapies to provide more thorough teeth cleaning and protection. They are also allowed to extract baby teeth among young children with the use of a local anesthetic.

Training and Licensing Requirements

All dentists are required to have dental school training, which usually takes four years. In some countries, dentists are also required to complete residency programs that may take anywhere between two and six years, focusing on at least one of the sub-specialties. After this, they will earn the title of DDS (Doctor of Dental Surgery) or DMD (Doctor of Dental Medicine). The specific title they receive depends on the type of dental school they attended, but the two titles are equivalent.

To keep them up to date with the latest developments and advances in their field, all dentists are required to continuously participate in lectures, conferences, and continuing education to educate and train them on new methods and technologies.

When should you see a dentist?

Patients are advised to see a dentist immediately after experiencing a symptom affecting their teeth. Ignoring dental problems may lead to them getting worse and requiring a more complicated and more costly treatment later on. The following symptoms are signs that it is time to have a dental checkup by making an appointment with your dentist.

  • Tooth pain – Toothache is usually a sign of a cavity or an infection, usually with abscess. If the pain is bearable, you may wait for your appointment. However, if the pain is severe, accompanied by inflammation, and fever, or if pus or some fluid drains from the affected area, it is important for the patient to receive immediate care.

  • Inflamed gums – Inflamed gums may suggest an infection, a dental abscess, or gingivitis.

  • Jaw pain – If there is pain in the jaw, an oral and maxillofacial specialist will check the jaw for signs of degeneration or inflammation. Jaw pain is often treated with a mouth guard combined with anti-inflammatory drugs.

  • Sensitivity to cold and hot temperatures – If your teeth suddenly became sensitive to hot and cold temperatures, this can be a sign of tooth decay.

  • Dry mouth – If left untreated, some dry mouth symptoms may affect a person’s general health. A dry mouth is one possible sign of bacterial infection or a mouth disease.

When should you go to the Emergency Room?

Some dental problems may require urgent attention. These include:

  • Traumatic injuries that lead to tooth loss
  • Chipped or broken tooth
  • Subluxation or teeth moving out of position or proper alignment
  • Cuts and lacerations to the cheeks, gums, and tongue

Regardless of whether there are traumatic and non-traumatic symptoms, patients are advised to seek professional dental care once every six months for proper teeth maintenance.


  • Bureau of Labor Statistics, US Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook
  • United States Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics: “What Dentists Do?”
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