Who’s Who at the Dentist’s Office

You may interact with certain dental health professionals on a regular basis and others only infrequently, when a special need arises. Here’s a quick guide to some of the more common members of the dental team:

Dental hygienists usually work in a dentist’s practice and perform tasks such as teeth cleaning, periodontal treatments, applying sensitivity products, and advising patients on oral care. To become licensed, hygienists must complete a two-year program in dental hygiene and pass national and state exams.


Dental assistants may perform a variety of tasks in the dental office, including assisting dentists and hygienists during treatment procedures, taking x-rays, educating patients on oral care, and performing office management tasks. Getting certified as a dental assistant generally takes 9 to 11 months in a specialized, certification program. Alternatively, an assistant may be trained on the job by the employer dentist.

Dentists are trained to diagnose and treat dental problems. Dentists who practice general dentistry usually train for four years and receive a degree as doctor of dental surgery (DDS) or doctor of dental medicine (DMD). Dentists must also pass national and state exams before being granted a license to practice in a given state. Specialists generally receive two to four years of additional training.

An endodontist specializes in ailments affecting the inside of the tooth, including the nerve center and the root. Common endodontic procedures include root canals and treating cracked and damaged teeth.

Orthodontists correct the positioning of teeth and the jaw, either for cosmetic reasons or to correct problems with someone’s bite. Treatment may include dental braces, headgear, retainers, and other devices.

A periodontist focuses on the tissues surrounding the teeth, including the gums, bones, and connective tissue. Periodontists perform nonsurgical interventions such as cleaning root surfaces to treat gum disease, as well as surgery to reduce “pockets” in the tissue around the teeth.

Prosthodontists deal in dental replacement structures, including implants, dentures, caps, and bridges. Prosthodontic treatments can focus on either functional or cosmetic restoration and replacement of teeth.