Simply put, an orthodontist is a type of dentist. However, many people don’t know this because general dentistry and orthodontics are treated as two very separate kinds of dental care. While some dental practices have both general dentists and orthodontists under the same roof, sometimes your general or family dentist will refer you out to a separate orthodontist’s practice if you need braces or another kind of orthodontic treatment.
Just like a general dentist, an orthodontist has gone to dental school and earned a DDS or DMD degree (or BDS degree outside North America). So an orthodontist has all the same training as a general dentist (or a prosthodontist or a periodontist for that matter). The difference is that the orthodontist has gone on to take 2 additional years of training in the specialty of orthodontics.
So what do orthodontists do? To put it plainly, they look after the alignment of your teeth, your bite, and your jaw. If you have teeth that are crowded or too far apart, an orthodontist can diagnose the problem and create a treatment plan to fix it. If your bite is misaligned so your teeth don’t come together properly when you close your mouth or chew, an orthodontist can also diagnose the problem and plan your treatment. Orthodontists can also treat jaw problems, including problems with the temporomandibular joint (or TMJ).
If you already are pretty familiar with what an orthodontist does, chances are you had braces as a child. Braces are the most common treatment that orthodontists are known for. They can be used to both realign teeth and to realign your bite. Orthodontists can also realign teeth using invisible plastic aligners, such as Invisalign, though general dentists can also treat patients using most forms of dental aligners. Once your teeth are aligned, your dentist may also provide you with a retainer to help keep your teeth in their new position.
So while a orthodontist is a dentist with all the same training as a general dentist, they have chosen to restrict their practice to treating tooth alignment and facial development.