How do I know what kind of dentist to see?

Good oral health contributes to your overall health, everyday functioning, and sense of self-esteem. Oral health is so important that it even has its own dedicated branch of medicine: dentistry. In general, dentists are the doctors who promote oral health, diagnose and treat oral concerns and diseases, and perform surgical procedures on the teeth, soft tissues, and bones of the oral cavity. But, as in most medical fields, dentistry has its specialists.

To effectively address various elements of oral health care, different dentists focus on specific oral health concerns and needs. Most first visits will begin in your family or general dentist’s office, and many family or general dentists have branched out into these areas of specialty, reducing the need for being referred away. Because restorative and cosmetic dentistry needs are so common, you will see many practices categorized as “Family and Cosmetic Dentistry.” It’s rare that a dentist is only one type of practitioner.

So how do you know which dentist is right for you? The first step is to understand what each specialty entails. Here are five types of dentists.

1. General Dentist: Prevention and Maintenance Specialist

A general dentist, also known as a family dentist, is your primary dental care provider who specializes in routine preventative care and restorative treatments. In addition to providing regular oral exams and dental cleanings, a general dentist also treats common dental issues, such as tooth decay and gum disease.

Common restorative treatments offered by a general dentist include cavity treatment and fillings, whitening services, damaged tooth repair, and gum disease intervention. Some general dentists, like Dr. Harrison, are also experienced in essential components of specialty care and are able to treat a wide range of dental conditions.  

As the specialists who help maintain and monitor your overall oral health, general dentists also provide education on at-home hygiene and guidance on other treatments you may need, such as mouth guards, orthodontics, or prosthetic teeth.  

When to See a General Dentist:

Generally speaking, you should see your general dentist at least twice a year for routine exams and cleanings. Your general dentist can also provide answers to your oral health care questions and guidance on when to seek specialized care.

2. Endodontists: Dental Pulp Specialists

An endodontist is a specialized dentist who diagnoses and treats issues with the soft, living interior of the tooth (called dental pulp). Your dental pulp makes up the center of each tooth and consists of nerves, blood vessels, and connective tissue. This living, sensitive dental pulp is protected by hard dentin and enamel. When tooth decay compromises the health of your tooth enamel, your dental pulp becomes vulnerable to bacterial infection (called “pulpitis”). In addition to causing discomfort and pain, untreated infection can eventually require a root canal or tooth extraction.  

When to See an Endodontist:

All dentists are trained in endodontic diagnosis and therapy to help save diseased teeth, though some situations may require specialized diagnosis and treatment. If necessary, Millennium’s Dr. Harrison can refer you to an endodontist to provide specialists’ treatment and help you save diseased teeth.   

3. Periodontist: Gum Specialist

A periodontist is a specialized dentist who treats gum problems and diseases. The gums, also known as gingivae, are connective tissues that cover the bones of your jaw and help anchor your teeth in place. Gum health can be compromised when oral bacteria infect the teeth, gum tissue, and the bone that supports the teeth. Early stages of gum disease are often reversible with professional dental intervention and improved home care. If left untreated, gum disease can affect the fibers and bones that hold the teeth in place, potentially causing irreversible tissue damage and tooth loss.

When to See a Periodontist:

Gum issues—such as swelling, bleeding, tenderness, and recession—are all reasons to visit your general dentist or a periodontist. All dentists are trained in gum disease prevention and treatment, though more advanced stages of gum disease may require specialists’ intervention. When necessary, a periodontist can provide this specialized intervention and can help prevent further tissue damage.

4. Orthodontist: Alignment Specialist

An orthodontist is a specialized dentist who corrects occlusion and tooth alignment using bands, wires, braces, and other dental devices. Occlusion refers to the functional contact between your upper and lower teeth, as occurs during chewing and biting. Malocclusion refers to a misaligned functional contact, often resulting from missing, crowded, or extra teeth. In addition to affecting your smile’s aesthetics, malocclusion can negatively impact the health and function your teeth, gums, jaw, and muscles of your head and neck.   

When to See an Orthodontist:

Concerns about the quality of your bite and the alignment of your teeth and jaws are all reasons to visit an orthodontist. Your general dentist can also help you understand your occlusion and options for specialized care.

5. Cosmetic Dentists: Smile Enhancement Specialists

A cosmetic dentist specializes in maintaining and elevating the health, function, and appearance of your smile. Using a variety of techniques and treatments, a cosmetic dentist can correct numerous dental complaints, such as crookedness, gaps between teeth, stains and discoloration, broken or missing teeth, and “gummy smiles.” In addition to improving your overall oral health and function, cosmetic dental treatments can boost your sense of self-confidence.

When to See a Cosmetic Dentist:

Dissatisfaction with any aspect of your smile’s appearance is the best reason to see a cosmetic dentist. A cosmetic dentist, like Dr. Harrison, can help you develop a personalized treatment plan that meets your unique goals and needs.

Your dental concerns are always worth addressing. If you’re unsure what type of dentist you need, start by making an appointment with Dr. Harrison. Not only do her areas of specialty cover general and cosmetic dentistry, but she also knows where to refer you if something requires further specialized care. Your oral health is precious. If you have pain or a problem, reach out to a dentist today.


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