Many of us probably know the difference between a general dentist and an orthodontist – most of us have, or have kids who have, had braces or retainers at some point or another. They likely had to go to an orthodontist to correct their teeth alignment, and then back to their family dentist for their general cleanings and yearly x-rays. All dental specialists have to have an education beyond general dentistry – the mouth and face are pretty complicated body parts! But other specialists that fall under the field of dentistry – oral surgeons and maxillofacial surgeons – are a little less well known. What do they do? And when do you need to see one? Well, we’re here to tell you.
Dentists vs Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeons: Education
Think about it this way. If you have an ear infection, you’ll go to see your primary care physician. If they see that you have an issue with your inner ear structure, they’ll send you to an ENT, a specialist in ear, nose and throat disorders. That’s because the ENT had specialized education for those specific issues. It’s the same with dentists vs oral surgeons and maxillofacial surgeons. All three of these medical professionals have to go to dental school after they get their bachelor’s. They either earn a doctorate in dental surgery (DDS) or a doctorate in dental medicine (DMD). After, general dentists have to pass a licensure process. But oral and maxillofacial surgeons have to complete a 4-6 year residency to become accredited. Why? Because they need to have applied experience in things like anesthesia and oral pathology. Just like your primary care doctor wouldn’t perform a surgery for a deviated septum, your general dentist wouldn’t perform a mouth reconstruction or facial trauma surgery. Make sense?
What do Oral Surgeons do?
Oral surgeons are dentists who have had advanced, specialized training in disorders of the face, jaw and mouth. They have been trained in medicine specific to surgery, like pain management and anesthesia – both of which require careful skill and expertise to be administered safely. Oral surgeons are usually dental implant dentists, and perform dental bone grafting, root canals, soft tissue grafting, and other mouth surgeries like root canals. Wisdom teeth removals can be performed by a DDS, but if there are complications like compaction, the DDS will likely pass the patient off to an oral surgeon.
What do Maxillofacial Surgeons do?
All maxillofacial surgeons are oral surgeons, but not all oral surgeons are maxillofacial surgeons. That’s why sometimes you’ll hear the terms used interchangeably or even together (i.e. oral and maxillofacial surgeon). Maxillofacial surgeons have even more specialized education and training than oral surgeons. The procedures they perform have significant overlap, but maxillofacial surgeons have the expertise to perform extremely intricate procedures. They’re typically facial trauma surgeons and can perform full mouth reconstructions. Likewise, they perform TMJ surgeries. Many oral surgeons also get the education needed to be maxillofacial surgeons, because when it comes to injuries and disorders of the face, jaw and mouth, the more your oral surgeon knows and has experience with, the better.
How to Know when you Need an Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeon
Your dentist will likely tell you when it’s necessary to recommend you to an oral and maxillofacial surgeon. For instance, if you have a dental emergency like a chipped tooth, your dentist can easily do the dental bonding needed to restore the tooth. But if your dental emergency requires the tooth to be extracted and replaced, they’ll send you to an oral surgeon. This is especially true if your jaw has been damaged in the accident as well. If your jaw is severely misaligned or moving, if you have really bad gum disease or recession, need a facial trauma surgeon, or significant dental bone grafting before dental implant surgery – these are all things you need an oral surgeon for. Basically, procedures that require invasive techniques like getting to the roots and nerves of the teeth, mouth reconstruction or pediatric oral surgery require an oral or maxillofacial surgeon. Ask your dentist; the best dental practices will have recommended oral surgeons with whom they work closely to get you the best oral care possible.