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dental terms searching dictionary

Dentistry is a form of medical practice. Indeed, the professional degrees awarded to graduates of dental schools reflect this. These are the DDS ( Doctor of Dental Surgery) and the DMD (Doctor of Dental Medicine).  The American Dental Association (ADA)  regards these two degrees as identical.  Before continuing, though, we’ll clear up the mysteries about “why two degrees?”  and explain how “DMD” stands for Doctor of Dental Medicine.  You’d think it should be “DDM”, right? Then, mysteries solved, we’ll unroll our Dentist’s Dictionary, a guide to dental terms.


The DMD degree is the creature of Harvard University.  Harvard degrees all have Latin names and always have. Hence, when in 1867 the oldest university in America opened a dental school, they had a problem. The other dental schools awarded the DDS degree. The wise men at Harvard thought a) dentistry is more than just surgery, and b) DDS doesn’t stand for Latin words. Thus, they decided “Doctor of Dental Medicine” better reflected the scope of dental practice. In Latin, that’s Dentariae Medicinae Doctor, so the degree is DMD.


In any case, dentists are doctors. In dental school, the Latin flies thick and fast. In contrast to the medical profession, though, dentists have been pretty good at translating to English. Nearly all common dental terminology is in everyday English wording.  Even so, the words usually don’t have their usual meanings, or not exactly so. Hence, the need for a Dentist’s Dictionary.  The purpose of the Dictionary is to provide a quick look-up resource for patients and parents of young patients.  We’ve provided links to encourage readers to seek additional information.  Without further ado, then, the Dentist’s Dictionary.

A – M

Aligner (Tray) – a nearly-invisible soft plastic, custom-fitted mouthpiece that patients slip onto their teeth. Aligners are an alternative to conventional braces for orthodontic treatment.

Analgesia – Reduction or loss of the ability to feel pain. Dentists sometimes prescribe analgesic pain medications.

Anesthesia –  A state of controlled unconsciousness the dentist brings on with medications.  See also Sedation and Analgesia. Local (or regional) anesthesia refers to numbing of a specific area, with the patient remaining conscious.

Basic Cleaning – A routine cleaning of teeth, usually by a hygienist. To remove normal plaque buildup between regular checkups.  See also Deep Cleaning.

Bonding is a treatment for restoring teeth to their original shape. The dentist applies and shapes a tough plastic  (composite resin) to restore broken, chipped, or broken teeth.  In addition to these repairs, dentists use bonding to reduce gaps between healthy, intact teeth.

Braces – Metal or ceramic hardware an orthodontist attaches to teeth in order to reposition and properly align them.  See also, Aligner.

Bridge – an artificial tooth filling a gap between two natural teeth. Bridges are attached to crowns the dentist places on the natural “anchor” teeth.

Calculus –NOT the impossible math course in high school. Rather, calculus is what becomes of plaque if it’s not removed. It absorbs minerals, becomes very hard, and penetrates down onto tooth roots. It’s also called tartar.  See also Plaque.

Caries – Tooth decay, or holes in teeth called cavities.

Crown – an artificial replacement for the upper part of a tooth.  The dentist grinds a tooth down to a stub, then installs the crown on this stub. Crowns in appearance are just like natural teeth. Crowns are also known as “caps”.

Deep Cleaning – a procedure for the treatment of gum disease that develops when plaque buildup isn’t controlled by Basic Cleaning.  Also known as scaling, and root planing.

Dentures are commonly called “false teeth”. Unlike a bridge, a denture is removable.

Dry Mouth – a shortage of saliva due to reduced production by the saliva glands.  The medical term is xerostomia. More than a nuisance. A threat to oral health.

Eruption – the process of a new tooth (baby or permanent) emerging from the gum.

Extraction – pulling teeth.

Filling – artificial material the dentist uses to fill cavities (caries).

Gingivitis – Inflammation of the upper parts of the gums, around the gumline, with no loss of tissue. The early stage of gum disease.

Impacted Wisdom Tooth – a wisdom tooth that collides with nearby teeth, before or during eruption. This usually leads the dentist or oral surgeon to weigh wisdom teeth extraction.

Implant – An artificial tooth the dentist uses to replace a natural tooth. Implants, in contrast with crowns, are rooted in the jawbone, like a natural tooth is.

Lesion – a localized injury, or diseased tissue.

Lingual – having to do with the tongue. Also, the inner surfaces of teeth, the surfaces facing the tongue. The other sides of teeth are the facial sides.

Malocclusion – when the biting surfaces of the upper and lower teeth don’t line up properly.

Mandible –  the lower jawbone.

Maxilla – the upper jaw.

Molar – one of the flat grinding teeth behind the pointed “dog teeth” (bicuspids).

N – Z

Oral Surgeon – A specialized dentist who performs more complex, invasive surgical procedures in the mouth and jaws. A dentist may refer patients to an oral surgeon in certain cases.  Sometimes referred to as a maxillofacial surgeon.

Orthodontist – a dentist who has taken several additional years of training, and specializes in straightening teeth.

Palate – the roof of the mouth. The bone and soft tissues between the mouth and passages leading from the nose to the throat.

Pediatric Dentistry – A specialized practice of dentistry with younger patients,  from infancy through adolescence.

Periodontal – having to do with the gums and jawbones, the tissues supporting teeth. Thus, periodontal disease is conditions such as gingivitis and periodontitis.

Periodontitis –  The advanced stage of gum disease that began with gingivitis.  Tissue and bone loss commonly appear in this stage.

Plaque – A clear, mushy film developing on teeth due to bacterial activity.  See also Calculus.

Prophylaxis – is in dental terms, a procedure or practice to prevent disease. In particular, the cleaning and scaling a hygienist does to remove plaque and calculus and prevent gum disease. Patients perform prophylaxis by brushing and flossing.

Radiograph – It’s just an x-ray!

Root –  The lower two-thirds of a tooth, normally anchored in the jaw bone.

Root Canal – replacing the infected pulp inside a tooth with an inert, artificial material.

Root Planing – see Deep Cleaning.

Scaling – see Deep Cleaning

Sealants –  a plastic (or other material) barrier the dentist paints onto teeth, to prevent decay.

Sedation –  The use of medication to calm and relax a patient. Sometimes used together with analgesia or with local anesthesia.  Sedated patients generally are conscious. For contrast, see Anesthesia.

TMD –  Temporomandibular Disorder.  Long word, a jawbreaker. One of those dental terms people struggle with.  Ironically, it refers to the temporomandibular joint, and disorders of this joint. It’s the jaw joint! Easy to remember: jawbreaker name, jaw joint.

Veneer – a very thin, very strong sheet of porcelain the dentist bonds (i.e., glues) to a tooth. Dentists apply veneers to repair damaged teeth and to improve the patient’s appearance.

Wisdom tooth – The rearmost set of molars. The third molar behind the bicuspid (“dog tooth”).


And there you have it. There’s more, of course, lots more. This short guide, though, should provide answers to most peoples’ basic questions about the meanings of common dental terms. Should you require clarification or don’t find your answers here, call your Lake Worth dentist’s office anytime.