If your teeth and gums are sore, and it's been awhile since you've had a visit to the dentist, you might need extensive work done to restore your smile. After your routine exam and cleaning, your general dentist might recommend that you see a periodontist for any necessary specialized oral care. This specialist has more training than a general dentist but takes care of many of the same issues.

What Is a Periodontist?

"Periodontal" is a medical term that refers to the gums and other parts of the mouth that surround the teeth. A periodontist handles all aspects of periodontal disease, from diagnosis to treatment and long-term management. Periodontists also place dental implants.

Often, seeing a periodontist is the next step after your regular dentist has diagnosed you with an advanced dental disease or if you require intervention beyond general dental care.

Reasons to See a Periodontist

You might see a periodontist if your mouth condition is severe or if your medical history is complex. If your gum disease has significantly progressed, for example, your dentist might refer you to a periodontist.

Periodontists do many procedures that go beyond what your general dentist is trained to do. For example, you may see a periodontist for a deep cleaning. Other common procedures performed by periodontists include:

  • Removal of the infected surface of a tooth root (root planing)
  • Removal of damaged tissue (root surface debridement)
  • Gum surgery
  • Dental implant placement, repair, and maintenance

The role of a periodontist may overlap with that of an oral surgeon. Depending on your location and specific circumstances, a periodontist may be able to provide the expertise you need to achieve optimal oral health.

Certification

A periodontist is a dentist with additional training in the specialty of periodontology. To understand the full certification held by your periodontist, you must look first to the training required of a general dentist.

To become a dentist, candidates in each state must complete an educational program leading to a DDS or DMD degree. In addition to completing this coursework, prospective dentists must pass written and oral examinations. State-specific requirements may also include a demonstration of good moral character, vaccinations, malpractice insurance, and CPR and/or life support certification.

To become a periodontist, dentists must complete an accredited postdoctoral program that lasts from 30 to 36 months. This specialized training is what distinguishes a general dentist from one qualified to practice periodontology.

It is, therefore, possible for a dentist to specialize in periodontology upon completion of the postdoctoral program. Your general dentist, however, may have referred you to a professional who is a "Board Certified" periodontist.

Board certification is not necessary to practice as a periodontist. However, some specialists choose to pursue this additional level of certification, issued by the American Board of Periodontology. Board certification means your periodontist has demonstrated advanced proficiency at placing dental implants and excellent knowledge of periodontal disease, including phases and treatment options.

To be Board certified, periodontists must:

  • Be certified as a dentist
  • Be certified as a periodontist
  • Complete an oral examination

Board certification must be repeated every six years. You can discover if your periodontist is Board certified by visiting the database on the American Board of Periodontology website.

Referral/Research

You may want to start your search for a periodontist by asking your general dentist to recommend a trusted local specialist. To confirm that your dentist is licensed to practice in your state, you should have access to an online database that allows you to search by last name or license type. Locate your local database by conducting an online search, or use the CareDash dentist finder to find a certified specialist.

To discover if a periodontist is right for you, assess their qualifications. You can call their office in advance of the appointment and ask how many years they've been in practice and how long they have been doing periodontology. If your periodontist is Board-certified, you may want to ask how recently that certification was renewed, since it expires every six years.

First Meeting and Questions to Ask

As with any medical specialist, it's important to ask your periodontist any questions you have on your mind. During your first meeting, however, you may want to cover the basics by asking things such as:

  • What can I expect from my dental treatment?
  • Is there a chance you might refer me to an oral surgeon?
  • Who will be the primary contact during my care, you or a dental assistant or nurse?
  • Should I still visit my regular dentist?
  • Given my medical history, are there any concerns about this treatment?

Depending on your particular circumstances, you may have additional questions to ask. For example, if you do not have insurance but need dental implants, you may ask about financial options. If your dental disease affects your ability to consume certain types of food, you may want to ask about nutritional requirements and options while you are under a periodontist's care.

Conclusion

A periodontist is an important part of your dental care team. They are specially qualified not only to diagnose your periodontal disease but also to assess your gum health and recommend a treatment plan. Your periodontist will likely communicate with your general dentist to make sure you receive appropriate medical care.

To find a periodontist that's right for you, research their qualifications using online tools and by speaking to your general dentist. Once you are under the care of a new dental professional, ask any questions on your mind to make sure you get the care you and your gums need.