General dentists complete an undergraduate education and four-year dental school to earn a doctor of dental medicine or doctor of dental surgery degree, while orthodontists require an additional post-graduate education and specialty certification, according to WebMD. General dentists typically provide primary care for long-term oral health maintenance. Orthodontists focus on correcting misaligned teeth.
A dentist is usually the first physician to examine a patient's dental issues, offering preventive and reparative care. General dentists treat the gums, mouth and teeth, performing services such as fillings, bridges, crowns and root canals, WebMD states. Dental schools decide whether to award DDM or DDS degrees, but these qualifications offer the same curriculum and professional status.
Orthodontists are also dentists, but they have satisfied the criteria for board certification in a specialty, according to the American Board of Orthodontics. Candidates attend a graduate program recognized by the Commission on Dental Accreditation and undergo written and clinical exams. Retesting is required for continued certification.
Dentists often refer patients to an orthodontist to handle developmental complications of the teeth or jaw. Orthodontists specialize in repairing malocclusions, which cause incorrect positioning of upper or lower teeth, according to Medical News Today. They fix overbites, underbites, crossbites, impacted teeth and many other conditions. Orthodontists frequently work with children who have crowded, protruding or gapped teeth to prevent future problems with eating, speech and oral health. They also install dental appliances, such as braces and space maintainers, to straighten teeth.