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This is a background article. See -Clinical psychology in dentistry

Dentistry, is a medical science, so more appropriately "dental medicine", is the art and science of prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of conditions, diseases, and disorders of the oral cavity, the maxillofacial region, and its associated structures as it relates to human beings. While the work of dentists is often surgical in nature, dentists can and do treat many diseases of the oral cavity and face chemotherapeutically (i.e. with prescribed medicines).

A dentist is a doctor, qualified to practice dentistry after graduating from dental education with a degree of Doctor of Dental Surgery (D.D.S.) or Doctor of Dental Medicine (D.M.D.- which stands for "Dentariae Medicinae Doctorae" in Latin) in the US. In most countries, to become a qualified dentist you must usually complete at least 8 years of study; an undergraduate degree at the university level and 4 years doctoral training. At least 2 years practical experience working with patients in the educational setting during the last two years of doctoral training are required.

The first dental school, the Baltimore College of Dental Surgery, opened in Baltimore, Maryland in 1840. Harvard Dental School was the first dental school to affiliate with a university in 1867 (renamed Harvard School of Dental Medicine in 1940.)

General dentistry

General dentistry is the only non-speciality field of dentistry. General dentists typically do not focus their clinical practice on any particular discipline within dentistry, and instead provide basic care within a variety of disciplines. However, they can (and often do) further their training in one or more speciality areas (such as surgery, endodontics, orthodontics, etc.). Hence, there can be a great deal of variation between the level of skill in different disciplines from dentist to dentist, however all dentists must achieve a certain degree of skill in various disciplines in order to graduate from dental school and earn licensure. General practitioners, unlike specialists, have the luxury of choosing which services they will provide and which they will refer to specialists. It is important to note that most general practitioners perform restorative, prosthetic, routine endodontic therapy, routine periodontal therapy, and simple exodontia, as well as performing examinations. Others are comfortable treating more complex cases, as well as placing implants and extracting third molars...among many other procedures frequently referred to specialists. Contrary to popular belief, most dentists do not regularly clean teeth, and instead delegate this task to their support staff (e.g. dental hygienists).

The American Dental Association [1] recognizes the following specialities in dentistry; Prosthodontics, Orthodontics, Endodontics, Periodontics, Oral Surgery, Oral Radiology, Pediatric dentistry and Public Health Dentistry. There is no recognized speciality for Cosmetic Dentistry, however there are several groups that offer credentialing in cosmetic dentistry including the American Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry [2] (AACD) and the Academy of Comprehensive Esthetics [3] (ACE). To become credentialed, dentists from both of these organizations must attend several hundred hours of continuing dental education, pass a written examination and submit clinical cases for Board review.


In addition to general dentistry, there are nine dental specialities recognized by the American Dental Association and require 2-6 years of residency training after dental school. The specialities are:

  • Dental Public Health (study of dental epidemiology and social health policies),
  • Endodontics (root canal therapy and study of diseases of the dental pulp),
  • Oral and Maxillofacial Pathology (study, diagnosis, and sometimes the treatment of oral and maxillofacial related diseases),
  • Oral and Maxillofacial Radiology (study and radiologic interpretation of oral and maxillofacial diseases),
  • Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery (extractions, facial surgery and implants),
  • Orthodontics and Dentofacial Orthopaedics (straightening of teeth and modification of midface and mandibular growth),
  • Pediatric dentistry (i.e. dentistry for children),
  • Periodontics (treatment of the periodontium, however most periodontists place implants),
  • Prosthodontics (dentures, bridges and the restoration of implants. Some prosthodontists further their training in "oral and maxillofacial prosthodontics--a discipline concerned with the replacement of missing facial structures--such as ears, eyes, nose, etc.)

Specialists in these fields are designated registrable (U.S. "Board Eligible") and warrant exclusive titles such as orthodontist, oral and maxillofacial surgeon, endodontist, pedodontist, periodontist, or prosthodontist upon satisfying certain local (U.S. "Board Certified") registry requirements.

Two other post-graduate formal advanced education programs: General Practice Residency (advanced clinical and didactic training with intense hospital experience) and Advanced Education in General Dentistry (advanced training in clinical dentistry) recognized by the ADA do not lead to specialization.

Special category: Oral Biology - Research in Dental and Craniofacial Biology

Other dental education exists where no post-graduate formal university training is required: cosmetic dentistry, dental implant, temporo-mandibular joint therapy. These usually require the attendance of one or more continuing education courses that typically last for one to several days. There are restrictions on allowing these dentists to call themselves specialists in these fields. The specialist titles are registrable titles and controlled by the local dental licensing bodies.

Forensic odontology consists of the gathering and use of dental evidence in law. This may be performed by any dentist with experience or training in this field. The function of the forensic dentist is primarily documentation and verification of identity.

Geriatric dentistry or geriodontics is the delivery of dental care to older adults involving the diagnosis, prevention, and treatment of problems associated with normal ageing and age-related diseases as part of an interdisciplinary team with other health care professionals.

Veterinary dentistry, a speciality of veterinary medicine, is the field of dentistry applied to the care of animals [4][5].

Dentistry for people with learning difficulties


Farmer at the dentist, Johann Liss, c. 1616-17.

In 2001, archaeologists studying the remains of two men from Mehrgarh, Ancient India made the discovery that the people of the Indus Valley Civilization, even from the early Harappan periods (c. 3300 BC), had knowledge of medicine and dentistry. The physical anthropologist that carried out the examinations, Professor Andrea Cucina from the University of Missouri-Columbia, made the discovery when he was cleaning the teeth from one of the men. Later research in the same area found evidence of teeth having been drilled, dating back 9,000 years. [1][2]

Some information contained in the Edwin Smith Papyrus dates as early as 3000 BC and includes the treatment of several dental ailments. [6][7] Hammurabi's Code contains some references to dental procedures and fees[8]. The Ebers papyrus also discusses similar treatments.[9] Examining the remains of some ancient Egyptians and Greco-Romans reveal early attempts at dental prosthetics and surgery.[10]

Medieval dentist extracting a tooth. London; c. 1360-75.

Historically, dental extractions have been used to treat a variety of illnesses. During the Middle Ages and through the 19th century, dentistry was not a profession into itself, and often dental procedures were performed by barbers or general physicians. Barbers usually limited their practice to extracting teeth, which not only resulted in the alleviation of pain, but often cured a variety of ailments linked with chronic tooth infection. Instruments used for dental extractions date back several centuries. In the 14th century, Guy de Chauliac invented the dental pelican (resembling a pelican's beak) which was used through the late 18th century. The pelican was replaced by the dental key which, in turn, was replaced by modern forceps in the 20th century.[How to reference and link to summary or text]

It is said that the 17th century French physician Pierre Fauchard started dentistry science as we know it today, hence he was named "the father of modern dentistry". Among many of his developments were, the extensive use of dental prosthesis, introducing dental fillings as treatment for dental caries and stating that sugar derivate acids like tartaric acid were responsible for dental decay.

Dentistry throughout the world

Main article: Dentistry throughout the world

In many countries, training in dentistry requires continuing education after high school and college. Degrees earned by dental graduates may give them the title, B.D.S (Bachelor of Dental Surgery), as is the case in Australia, Hong Kong, India, and the United Kingdom. Other countries, such as the United States and Sweden, may give D.D.S (Doctor of Dental Surgery) degrees. Licensure to practice and scope of permissible dental treatments are defined by various laws within a country. This includes the training required to practice specialized fields of dentistry.

Related dental topics

Sagittal section of a tooth


Further reading

Key texts


  • Allen, K. D., & Stokes, T. F. (1989). Pediatric behavioral dentistry. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.
  • Antoniou, A.-S. G., Komboli, D., Vrotsos, J., & Mantzavinos, Z. (2005). The role of psychosocial factors in the development of periodontal disease. Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar Publishing.
  • Croucher, R., Marcenes, W., & Pau, A. (2006). Community Health Promotion. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.
  • Gift, H. C., & White, B. A. (1997). Health behavior research and oral health. New York, NY: Plenum Press.
  • Inglehart, M. R. (2006). Oral Health and Quality of Life. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.
  • Kent, G. (2001). Dental health. Amsterdam, Netherlands: Elsevier Science Publishers B V.
  • Koerber, A. (2006). Health Behavior and Helping Patients Change. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.
  • Melamed, B. G., & Fogel, J. (2000). The psychologist's role in the treatment of dental problems. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon.
  • Miltenberger, R. G., & Rapp, J. T. (2006). Behavior Management in Dentistry: Thumb Sucking. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.
  • Moretti, R. J., & Ayer, W. A. (1998). Dental-related problems and health psychology. Ashland, OH: Hogrefe & Huber Publishers.
  • Moretti, R. J., & Ayer, W. A. (2004). Dental-related problems and health psychology. Ashland, OH: Hogrefe & Huber Publishers.
  • Mostofsky, D. I., Forgione, A. G., & Giddon, D. B. (2006). Behavioral dentistry. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.
  • Niskanen, M. C., & Knuuttila, M. L. E. (2006). Health Behavior and Dental Care of Diabetics. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing
  • Numerous, C. (1992). Eyes, ears, nose, mouth, and throat. St Louis, MO: Quality Medical Publishing.
  • Riley, J. L., III. (2006). Behavioral Issues in Geriatric Dentistry. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.
  • Sterling, E. S., & Casamassimo, P. S. (1995). Pediatric dentistry. Cambridge, MA: Brookline Books.
  • Syrjala, A.-M. (2006). Self-Efficacy Perceptions in Oral Health Behavior. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.
  • Tepper, L. M., & Seidman, D. F. (1999). The role of the dental profession in tobacco cessation. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers.


Additional material


  • White, L. W. (1997). A new paradigm of motivation. Ann Arbor, MI: Center for Human Growth and Development.


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