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The distinction between an orthodontist vs. a dentist can be kind of confusing. After all, both are dental professionals who work with teeth. And, if you’ve been looking into orthodontics, you might have even seen general dentists advertising Invisalign® treatment.

Does it really matter which doctor you see? The answer is, yes! When comparing an orthodontist to a general dentist, there are major differences in training, as well as in the focus of their practice. I’ll be covering these differences and giving you a better idea of which professional to see to meet your smile needs.

What is a General Dentist?

A general dentist diagnoses, prevents and treats a range of oral health concerns. They are your primary dental care provider and serve as the point person for your overall oral health needs, often referring you to a specialist, such as a periodontist, orthodontist or endodontist, for more complex issues.

This is similar to the medical world where you go to your general practitioner for routine screenings and certain types of care, but are referred to other medical professionals like an orthopedist, neurologist or endocrinologist for speciality care

What is an Orthodontist?

Orthodontics and dentofacial orthopedics is one of 12 dental specialties recognized by the National Commission on Recognition of Dental Specialties and Certifying Boards. The commission says, “Orthodontics and dentofacial orthopedics is the dental specialty that includes the diagnosis, prevention, interception, and correction of malocclusion, as well as neuromuscular and skeletal abnormalities of the developing or mature orofacial structures.”

What does that mean? An orthodontist is a specialist in diagnosing, preventing and treating malocclusion, or a “bad” bite caused by irregularities of the teeth and jaw. We are also well versed in the entire chewing system, which includes the teeth, jaw, nerves, temporomandibular joints (TMJ) and muscles, as well as in orofacial (relating to the mouth and face) development.

As an Arvada, CO orthodontist, like most orthodontists, I generally refer to myself as an orthodontist, but dentofacial orthopedics is also part of the specialty. Dentofacial orthopedics means using appliances to guide jaw growth in growing patients. Because we’re specialists, Dr. Scott Czarnik and I focus on only orthodontics and dentofacial orthopedics at our practice.

Orthodontist vs. Dentist: Educational Requirements

As we noted, orthodontists focus only on orthodontics, while general dentists focus on your overall oral health. The other big difference is in our education, or training. Orthodontists are dentists and we go to dental school, but we complete two to three additional years of speciality training to become a certified specialist in orthodontics and dentofacial orthopedics.

How long does it take to become an orthodontist? 10 to 11 years after high school. Yup, it’s a whole lot of schooling, but it’s during our speciality training in an orthodontic residency program that we learn the intricacies of aligning the teeth and jaw.

Educational Requirements to Become a General Dentist:

  • High school diploma
  • Bachelor’s degree from a college or university
  • Doctorate degree in dental medicine or dental surgery (DMD or DSD) from an accredited dental school

Educational Requirements to Become an Orthodontist:

  • High school diploma
  • Bachelor’s degree from a college or university
  • Doctorate degree in dental medicine or dental surgery (DMD or DSD) from an accredited dental school
  • Two to three years of speciality training in an orthodontic residency program, resulting in a certificate in orthodontics and/or master’s degree

Orthodontic residency programs are super competitive, averaging one spot for every 15 applicants. After graduating from dental school at the University of Illinois-Chicago, I was chosen to attend orthodontic residency at University of North Carolina, while Dr. Czarnik was selected for the residency program at University of Minnesota.

During residency, we both worked full days treating actual patients while being closely supervised. We also had to complete coursework and fulfill lab requirements, as well as study for exams. Residency is intense, but incredibly rewarding! Upon completing our residencies, Dr. Czarnik and I received our certificate in orthodontics and dentofacial orthopedics, plus our Master of Science degrees.


What Does a Dentist Do?

A general dentist usually offers:

  • Dental exams
  • Dental cleanings
  • Diagnostics and x-rays
  • Oral cancer screenings
  • Preventative treatment, such as fluoride varnish and dental sealants
  • Education (i.e., diet counseling, homecare, etc.)
  • Treatment for cavities, infection, mild gum disease and other oral diseases
  • Restorative care, including dental fillings, crowns and bridges
  • Cosmetic treatment, such as dental veneers and teeth whitening

Some general dentists are allowed to provide certain specialty services like Invisalign treatment. However, the training they receive to perform these treatments is much less in depth than specialty training.

What Does an Orthodontist Do?

So, what does an orthodontist do? At Cronin & Czarnik Orthodontics in North Denver, some of the main services we offer include:

  • Growth and development check-ups for children with a mix of baby teeth and permanent teeth (the American Association of Orthodontists recommends kids have their first orthodontic evaluation no later than age 7)
  • Diagnostics, including digital x-rays, iCAT 3D imaging and iTero digital scanning
  • Phase 1 orthodontic treatment, also known as early interceptive orthodontic treatment, that focuses on guiding jaw growth with appliances (dentofacial orthopedics) and/or encouraging the permanent teeth to erupt into their correct places
  • Braces treatment with metal braces, self-ligating braces and clear braces for children, teenagers and adults
  • Invisalign and Invisalign Teen treatment for teens and adults
  • Surgical orthodontics (combining orthodontic treatment with corrective jaw surgery to treat severe skeletal misalignment in mature patients)
  • Retainers

Aside from using appliances like braces and Invisalign to straighten the teeth and align the bite, an orthodontist is also an excellent resource for problems, such as temporomandibular joint (TMJ) dysfunction and oral habits, including prolonged thumb sucking and tongue thrust.

What is a Board-Certified Orthodontist?

Being the go-getters we are, both Dr. Czarnik and I are certified by the American Board of Orthodontics. To achieve this distinction, after finishing our residencies, we voluntarily completed hundreds of extra hours of preparation and education, written exams and clinical exams to show that we’re able to provide the highest level of patient care. We have to renew our certification every 10 years, which highlights our commitment to continuing education.

Why Should You Visit an Orthodontist to Straighten Your Teeth?

First, I want to start by saying that I love dentists! In fact, dentists refer a lot of patients to our practice. Your general dentist plays an integral role in keeping your mouth healthy and free of disease and you’ll continue to see them throughout your orthodontic treatment.

But, the truth is, if you want to straighten your teeth, it’s important to visit a certified specialist in orthodontics for care (bonus points if they’re a board-certified orthodontist). Though some general dentists have done Invisalign training, they didn’t complete a residency program. A few weekend courses on Invisalign is a lot different than the 5,000+ hours spent in an orthodontic residency learning the biomechanics of the bite and how to safely and effectively straighten the teeth in a way that promotes optimal oral health.

Another point to keep in mind is that orthodontic treatment can permanently change your smile and facial structure. A specialist can ensure these changes are positive ones. Dr. Czarnik and I rely on our training to design smiles that complement each patient’s lips, profile and facial features. This requires the ability to use orthodontic technology and advanced techniques, which is why we complete 40 additional hours of lectures and training on specific techniques and new technology every year.

Orthodontics really is an art and a science and goes beyond simply moving your teeth. Sometimes, inexperienced providers fix one or two crooked teeth but neglect the big picture like the bite and other key factors in healthy occlusion. An orthodontist is an expert in considering the relationship between your upper and lower teeth (bite), creating harmony in your entire chewing system, and striking the perfect balance of aesthetics and function.

The Bottom Line:

  • General dentists focus on patients’ overall oral health. Orthodontists are specialists who focus solely on orthodontics and dentofacial orthopedics.
  • Both dentists and orthodontists go to dental school. While general dentists can start practicing immediately after earning their doctorate degree, orthodontists complete two to three more years of speciality training in an orthodontic residency program. There, they receive in-depth education and experience in diagnosing, preventing and treating irregularities of the teeth and jaw in patients of all ages.
  • For preventative dental care, concerns like tooth decay or referrals to dental specialists, visit your general dentist. If you’re considering straightening your teeth, visit an orthodontist. Our training makes us uniquely positioned to use appliances to help you achieve a beautiful, functional smile.

Schedule a Free Consultation With a Westminster, CO Orthodontist

Now that you know why a certified specialist in orthodontics is your best option for aligning your teeth and bite, are you wondering, “How do I find an orthodontist near me?” If you’re in the North Denver area, we have you covered here at Cronin & Czarnik Orthodontics in Westminster, CO.

Schedule a complimentary consultation at our practice today. As board-certified orthodontists, Dr. Czarnik and I have the training and experience to diagnose your orthodontic concerns and create a personalized treatment plan to help you achieve your best smile. And, because we stay up-to-date on the latest technology, treatment will be convenient, efficient and comfortable.

Cronin & Czarnik Orthodontics

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