Dental Surgeon vs. Dentist: Responsibilities and Differences

Updated March 3, 2023

Dental professionals collaborate to maintain, fix, evaluate and perform procedures on patients' mouths and teeth to ensure optimal oral health. Although they perform similar tasks, dentists and dental surgeons have different responsibilities regarding patient needs. Learning each profession's duties or the additional education professionals pursue to become a surgeon can help decide which career is right for you. In this article, we discuss what dental surgeons and dentists do and examine the differences between the two positions.

What is a dental surgeon?

Dental surgeons, or oral and maxillofacial surgeons, are dental professionals who specialize in performing surgery on a person's teeth, gums and other areas around their mouth. They typically understand how to perform additional surgeries or treatments in other specialty areas including otolaryngology, which is the treatment of the ears, nose and throat, and plastic surgery to understand how treatments or conditions in different parts of the face and head interact with the oral cavity.

Related: What Is an Oral Surgeon?

What does a dental surgeon do?

Dentists usually refer patients to dental surgeons for more complicated surgeries that require unique evaluation, tools or pain management techniques. Some tasks dental surgeons perform include:

  • Extractions: This is the process of removing teeth from the jaw. One common extraction procedure is the removal of compacted wisdom teeth.

  • Implants: The opposite of extraction, an implant is the insertion of dental prosthetics such as bridges, dentures, crowns or metal roots. These artificial parts can look like a regular tooth and can help avoid issues such as crowded teeth.

  • Corrective jaw surgery: This procedure, also referred to as orthognathic surgery, fixes any issues in the jaw itself to help realign the jaws and teeth, improving their function. This can help make chewing easier, correct swallowing issues and improve sleep apnea.

  • Facial trauma treatment: This can include issues such as teeth falling out because of an accident, a dislocated jaw or fractured bones around the jaw. Oral surgeons evaluate, diagnose, treat and perform surgeries for these issues.

  • TMJ treatment: Temporomandibular joint dysfunction (TMJ) is pain or discomfort caused by issues in the joint connecting the jaw to the skull. Dental surgeons may provide patients with at-home treatment options or perform surgery to improve joint function in these cases.

  • Tumor removal: This type of procedure may be necessary if a patient has cancerous tumors in or around their mouths. These might also supplement other treatment options such as radiation.

  • Soft tissue removal: Oral surgeons may also remove soft tissue, such as parts of the gums, to improve overall oral function of patients. This can include procedures such as gum grafting, which helps prevent gums from receding.

  • Anesthesia administration: Depending on the length, intensity and expected pain of a procedure, surgeons may also administer anesthesia to patients.

What is a dentist?

Dentists are medical professionals who specialize in treating and providing preventive care for their patients' mouths and teeth. These healthcare professionals are often the primary care providers for individuals and families receiving dental care. Dentists often meet with patients annually or bi-annually to assess their overall oral health.

Related: How Long Does It Take To Become a Dentist? A Career Guide to Dentistry

What does a dentist do?

Common tasks a dentist performs include:

  • Cavity treatment: Dentists often clean cavities using fluoride, fill cavities and place crowns to treat decay within a tooth.

  • Root canals: This is a procedure to treat deep cavities or cracked teeth. Dentists usually conduct root canal treatment when the pulp gets infected within a tooth to treat the infection and prevent future problems.

  • X-ray administration: Along with routine checkups, dentists often request that patients receive X-rays annually. They review the X-rays to evaluate overall health and alignment and keep these to ensure that patient records remain updated.

  • Teeth cleaning: Dental hygienists typically clean patients' teeth twice a year, but often, dentists complete this task, too. This allows them to perform standard checkups and have a general overview of patients' oral health.

  • Order and measure dentures: For patients requiring dentures or partials, dentists create molds and order them for patients. They also educate patients on denture procedures and make adjustments when necessary.

  • Basic extractions: Though dental surgeons perform complex or invasive extractions, dentists oversee basic extractions.

  • Supervise staff: Many dentists own their own practice with a staff of hygienists, assistants and other professionals. They oversee and approve appointments, office budgets and staffing needs.

  • Develop treatment plans: Dentists might also provide patients with custom treatment plans to help them improve their oral health. This may include diet recommendations or specific dental care equipment.

Differences between a dental surgeon and a dentist

Although dental surgeons and dentists are similar professions, there are several key differences between them. Here are some areas in which they differ:


Both dentists and oral surgeons earn a bachelor's degree in a scientific field and then attend dental school. This can take around eight years between classwork and clinical practice to complete, earning either doctorate degrees in dental surgery (DDS) or in dental medicine (DMD). While a dentist then earns licensure and begins practicing, oral surgeons typically enter a surgical residency program lasting four to six years. Practicing surgeons may receive set salaries as they learn how to perform surgeries in certain specialty areas and study areas of expertise such as anesthesiology and pathology.

Related: How To Become an Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeon


While dentists are primary care physicians responsible for the upkeep of a patient's oral health along with simple treatments, oral surgeons perform evaluations and procedures for specific, complex issues and surgeries. For example, if a patient is in a car accident that affects their jaw alignment, they might contact a dental surgeon rather than their dentist. If they contact a dentist instead, these professionals can provide basic guidance and refer patients to particular surgeons.

Pain management techniques

Dentists typically use anesthesia for their patients, while oral surgeons receive training on both anesthesia and IV treatments. This provides patients with additional options, depending on their preference and the pain resulting from a particular surgery. Some dentists may receive short training on IV pain management, but many are limited with the pain management options they can offer patients.

Work environment

Dentists may work at their own practice or at a practice owned by another dentist or professional. Although oral surgeons may work in the same environments, they also may work for an oral surgery network or in an office with other professionals who have different specialties. Some oral surgeons, called itinerant oral surgeons, visit dentists' offices to perform procedures.


Salaries in dentistry often depend on experience, how many patients each professional sees, whether a certain professional owns their own practice and different locations, among other factors. However, the average annual salary for an oral surgeon is $297,940 , while the average annual salary for dentists is $236,442.

What are some related careers to dentists and oral surgeons?

Here are a few related careers to dentists and dental surgeons that you might consider pursuing:

Dental hygienist

Hygienists work with dentists to help improve and maintain the oral health of patients. They may perform cleanings, administer X-rays and provide advice to patients. Their primary duty during cleanings is to remove plaque and stains and polish teeth.

Related: Dental Assistant vs. Dental Hygienist: Key Differences


These dental professionals focus on the evaluation and treatment of alignment issues with the mouth and jaw. Their primary goal is to ensure patients maintain proper alignment to improve chewing and swallowing abilities and to prevent additional issues such as cracking. One of their most common tasks is to fit patients with braces or retainers.


These professionals evaluate patients and perform surgeries on specific areas of the body. Surgeons might specialize in certain areas such as the brain, skin or heart. Surgeons fix injuries, administer pain management techniques and improve the overall health of a patient.


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