Orthodontic Assistant vs. Dental Assistant: What's the Difference?

By Indeed Editorial Team

June 10, 2021

While both orthodontic and dental assistants work on people's teeth to ensure their health and strength, they have different duties, purposes and salaries. Orthodontic assistants help straighten teeth, while dental assistants help clean them. If you're interested in providing an important type of healthcare and working with people, consider becoming a professional in orthodontics or dentistry. In this article, we discuss orthodontic assistants, dental assistants and the differences between the two.

What is an orthodontic assistant?

An orthodontic assistant works with an orthodontist to straighten people's teeth and correct their jaw alignment or bite. To do this, they may help install and maintain devices in a patient's mouth such as braces, retainers, brackets and jaw expanders. Orthodontic assistants work to keep their patients healthy by preventing the issues the misalignment of teeth or jaws can cause, including difficulties chewing, pain, sleep apnea and an increased risk of gum disease. Those in this role may also provide cosmetic services for patients who just want their teeth to appear straighter.

Here are some of the job duties of an orthodontic assistant:

  • Assist the supervising orthodontist in assessing a patient's teeth and implementing a plan to straighten them

  • Perform routine orthodontic duties for patients' teeth, including cleaning them and making adjustments to orthodontic gear

  • Clean and sterilize instruments, other medical equipment and work areas

  • Prepare tools for the orthodontist and pass them instruments during procedures

  • Take X-rays, photos, casts, molds and impressions of patients' mouths to form diagnoses or check treatment progress

  • Support orthodontists during dental emergencies

  • Greet and check-in patients, ask them if they are experiencing dental problems and answer questions they may have

  • Perform clerical tasks, such as organizing and updating patient records, processing payments and scheduling appointments

Read more: How To Become an Orthodontic Dental Assistant (8 Steps)

What is a dental assistant?

A dental assistant works with a dentist to clean and maintain people's teeth. Dental assistants ensure their patient's teeth are strong and functional by conducting examinations, providing treatments and educating them about proper teeth care. They may also assist dentists in performing oral surgeries such as tooth extractions, wisdom teeth removal, root canals and dental implants. A primary focus of dental assistants is preventing and treating gum infections and diseases, such as gingivitis and periodontitis. They also often remove cavities, repair chipped teeth and create mouth guards for people who grind their teeth.

Here are some common job duties for dental assistants:

  • Clean and sterilize tools and work areas in a dentist's office and examination rooms

  • Pass instruments to the dentist during examinations and procedures

  • Use a suction hose tool to keep patient's mouth dry and keep them comfortable during procedures

  • Assist in tasks related to oral surgery, such as applying topical anesthetics, suturing gums and removing stitches

  • Communicate with patients to make them feel welcome, keep them calm and answer questions they may have

  • Provide discharge information and at-home care instructions for patients, including instructions for maintaining proper oral health and hygiene

  • Treat tooth decay, remove cavities, repair fractures and prevent and treat gum diseases

  • Perform clerical tasks such as answering phones, scheduling appointments and preparing patients for the dentist's arrival

Read more: How To Become a Dental Assistant

Orthodontic assistant vs. dental assistant

The positions of orthodontist assistant and dental assistant are very similar, as many of their training requirements and job duties overlap. Many people become dental assistants before becoming orthodontic assistants, and some states even require a professional to gain a certain amount of experience as a dental assistant before practicing as an orthodontic assistant. In addition, people often get specialized orthodontic assistant training at dental programs or schools. However, there are some important differences between these two jobs, including:

Duties

The duties of orthodontic and dental assistants differ based on the purposes of their medical care. While orthodontic assistants may treat patients by examining and fixing devices like braces, dental assistants usually treat patients by cleaning teeth and gums. Orthodontic assistants often help orthodontists, while dental assistants help dentists. However, many of their other duties overlap, such as welcoming patients and assisting with oral procedures.

Purpose

While both dental and orthodontic assistants provide healthcare and cosmetic services, the purposes of these professionals can differ. Primarily, dental assistants examine and maintain the health of teeth and gums, keeping them clean and free of diseases. They may also remove teeth to prevent infection or clean teeth to make them look brighter. Orthodontic assistants focus on the structure of teeth and jaws, correcting their positions. Orthodontic assistants may correct a patient's jaw alignment to make it easier for them to chew or install braces to help someone feel more confident about their smile.

Related: Orthodontist vs. Dentist: What are the Differences?

Procedures

While both orthodontic and dental assistants work alone or with supervisors to perform medical procedures, these types of procedures differ. Here are some procedures orthodontic assistants may assist with or perform:

  • X-rays: X-rays provide pictures of a patient's jaws and teeth to determine their state in development, positioning and alignment.

  • Banding: Banding is placing strong metal rings on and around a patient's back teeth to hold their braces in place.

  • Bonding: Bonding is attaching brackets to a patients' teeth using a special, safe adhesive.

  • Archwires: An archwire is a wire that runs through brackets to form braces and align teeth.

  • Impressions: An impression is a tray of alginate material that creates a mold of a patient's teeth, often for the making of retainers.

  • Photographs: Digital photographs of a patient's face, profile and teeth help orthodontists assess alignment and measure changes.

Here are some procedures that dental assistants may complete:

  • Bonding: A different type of bonding than orthodontists, this dental procedure allows dentists and their assistants to use a special mixture of resin to repair chipped or fractured teeth or replace teeth.

  • Crowns: A crown or cap is a metal, acrylic or porcelain protective cover over a decayed or damaged tooth.

  • Bridges: Bridges are false teeth in between two anchoring teeth, often supported by dental implants.

  • Fillings: Dentists and their assistants use restorative materials to fill gaps in teeth that have cavities or other damages.

  • Tooth extractions: Dental professionals may need to extract or remove damaged teeth such as cavities, or wisdom teeth that may disrupt other tooth positions.

  • Sutures: Sutures or stitches help hold gums together to heal after a tooth extraction surgery.

Tools

Those in the dental and orthodontic fields need to use special tools to complete their duties and procedures. While dental assistants and orthodontic assistants may sometimes use the same instruments, such as cheek retractors and bite sticks, here are some tools that dentists mainly use:

  • Dental drills

  • Excavators

  • Mouth mirrors

  • Sickle probes

Here are some tools and devices that orthodontic assistants are usually experts on:

  • Braces

  • Retainers

  • UV curing lights

Career path

The career paths of dental and orthodontic assistants may differ. After gaining experience, dental assistants often become dental hygienists, dentists or even nurses or doctors. They may also choose to become dental office managers, dental treatment coordinators or other administrative professionals. While orthodontic assistants can pursue the same jobs, they may decide to become full-time orthodontists. Professionals in these fields can choose the right career path based on their interests, budgets and other factors.

Salary

Salary varies based on various factors, including geographical location, company, education and years of experience. According to Indeed Salaries, the national average salary of an orthodontic assistant is $43,897 per year. In contrast, the national average salary for a dental assistant is $60,464 per year. This may be because dental assistants can be responsible for more in-depth surgeries, such as root canals and wisdom teeth removal. Dental assistants may also be more in demand than orthodontic assistants, since people typically only wear orthodontic devices temporarily, whereas they usually pay for dental care for their entire lives.

Related: Highest Paying Jobs in the Medical Field

Education and training requirements

Assistants typically have fewer requirements to complete than an actual orthodontist or dentist. Orthodontic assistants need at least a high school diploma or GED and a CPR certificate to get into a training program or vocational school. They may complete a two-year associate degree in dental assisting, learning basic dental healthcare, or a certificate from a training program specific to orthodontic assisting. In training, they take laboratory and clinical classes to learn technical skills to use in their field, like dental radiography, manipulating archwires and chairside assisting.

Dental assistants also need a high school diploma or GED and CPR certification, and they typically attend community colleges, technical schools or other accredited programs to earn certifications as a National Entry Level Dental Assistant, Certified Dental Assistant, Certified Preventative Functions Dental Assistant or Certified Restorative Functions Dental Assistant, all offered by the Dental Assisting National Board (DANB). In contrast, prospective orthodontic assistants usually try to earn the Certified Orthodontic Assistant credential, also offered by the DANB. Passing the exams to earn licenses and certifications can show an orthodontic or dental assistant's skills and increase their earning potential.

Related: A Comprehensive List of Medical Field Majors

Relationships with patients

Orthodontic services are typically more temporary, and dental services are more permanent. While orthodontic assistants may see their patients regularly, usually every six to eight weeks, most patients only wear braces or other orthodontic devices for two to four years. In addition, orthodontic assistants may work more with children than dental assistants, since most people get braces when they are children. In contrast, a dentist sees patients about every six months for routine exams and teeth cleanings, but they can build relationships with patients and their families over their entire lives.

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