What Is an Oral Surgeon?

These dental specialists operate on the mouth, teeth, jaws, and face

Dental implant model

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An oral surgeon is a dental specialist that's trained to perform surgical procedures on the mouth, teeth, jaws, and face. While dentists can perform minor oral surgeries, they're not oral surgeons or oral and maxillofacial surgeons (OMS), which is the full name of these specialists. The word maxillofacial means relating to the jaws and face.

An OMS attends four years of dental school and then completes at least four to six additional years of surgical training. These specialists are also trained to administer anesthesia and provide care in an office setting. 

There's a lot of overlap between oral surgery and other dental specialties. Talk to your dentist to find out which specialist you should see to handle your tooth problems.

Concentrations

The first time many people interact with an OMS is to have their wisdom teeth removed, but the scope of what an OMS does is much broader than tooth extractions. These providers can also help patients with the following:

Dental Implants

Dental implants are used to replace missing teeth. Implants are embedded in your jawbone, just like your natural teeth.

Developmental Conditions

Surgical repair of a cleft lip and cleft palate have medical benefits beyond the cosmetic. Repairing a cleft lip and palate will provide an infant with improved ability to nurse or drink from a bottle while also helping to facilitate optimal speech.

Head and Neck Cancer

Head and neck cancer, which includes oral cancer, develops when abnormal cells within the lining of the cheeks, gums, roof of the mouth, tongue, or lips grow uncontrollably. Often times, oropharyngeal cancer, which affects the soft palate, the side and back walls of the throat, the back third of the tongue, and the tonsils, is lumped under this term, too.

Treat Facial Injury and Trauma

This includes fractures of the upper and lower jaws and the orbits surrounding the eyes, and facial lacerations. The knowledge an OMS has of how jaws come together (dental occlusion) is critical when repairing complex facial fractures. 

Corrective Jaw Surgery

Corrective jaw surgery (aka orthognathic surgery) is performed to correct a wide range of minor and major skeletal and dental irregularities, including the misalignment of jaws and teeth. Surgery can improve chewing, speaking and breathing. While the patient's appearance may be dramatically enhanced as a result of the surgery, orthognathic surgery is performed to correct functional problems.

TMJ and Facial Pain

TMJ refers to a problem with the temporomandibular joint (TMJ), which is located in front of your ears and joins your jaw to your skull. But TMJ disorder is a more accurate term for any TMJ-related dysfunction that causes facial pain or other symptoms.

Facial Cosmetic Surgery

Unlike plastic surgery, which focuses on repairing defects to reconstruct a normal function and appearance, cosmetic surgery is focused on enhancing appearance.

Obstructive Sleep Apnea

Obstructive sleep apnea is a chronic breathing disorder in which a person repeatedly stops breathing during the night. It's often caused by a partial or complete obstruction (or collapse) of the upper airway by excess tissue, large tonsils, and/or a large tongue.

Procedural Expertise

Oral surgeons are trained and authorized to perform a variety of procedures, including:

Tooth Extractions

The most recognized form of oral surgery is tooth extraction. Reasons for tooth extraction can include:

  • Impacted or partially erupted wisdom teeth
  • Teeth beyond repair either from tooth decay, root fracture, or trauma
  • Primary teeth that have failed to fall out, preventing the eruption of permanent teeth
  • Orthodontic treatment plans, which may require the removal of some teeth to reduce crowding and achieve the optimum result

Cleft Lip/Palate Surgery

This surgery is not a single procedure, but rather a series of surgeries to help maximize the benefit to a child while minimizing the risks for complications.

Corrective Jaw Surgery

Orthognathic surgery is commonly performed to treat:

  • TMJ and dysfunction caused by trauma or deformation
  • Major or minor trauma to the jaw
  • Malocclusion or incorrect bite
  • Clenching, or grinding of the teeth, which causes excessive tooth wear
  • Difficulty chewing, eating, opening and closing the mouth, or talking
  • Incorrect jaw position, which can lead to an out-of-proportion facial appearance

Dental Implants

Dental implants are becoming a common procedure to replace missing teeth or to provide stability to a new or existing denture. The procedure for placing a dental implant may vary depending on the technique used by the surgeon and by the type of implant used.

Cancer Surgery

The typical treatment for head and neck cancer is surgery. Head and neck cancers can involve the tongue, mouth, salivary glands, and the throat. Malignant change can also occur in the nasal cavity, middle ear, sinuses, and larynx. Oral and maxillofacial surgeons commonly treat the disease, which may be used as a combination treatment with radiation therapy.

Facial Cosmetic Procedures

With their surgical and dental background, oral and maxillofacial surgeons often perform cosmetic procedures involving the functional and aesthetic aspects of the face, mouth, teeth, and jaws.

Sleep Apnea

Oral surgeons often serve as a member of the sleep team to help treat obstructive sleep apnea.

Subspecialties

Some oral and maxillofacial surgeons will pursue subspecialties that allow them to focus on certain conditions or populations. Examples include:

Head and neck cancer

After complete removal of the cancer, reconstruction—often utilizing microvascular surgery and free tissue transfer—is performed. That entails using bone, muscle, and skin from other parts of the body to replace the missing part.

Cosmetic facial surgery

This includes procedures like face-lifts, rhinoplasties, and eyelid surgery.

Craniofacial surgery and pediatric maxillofacial surgery

These procedures include cleft lip and palate repair and surgery to repair craniosynostosis, a birth defect that gives the head a misshapen appearance.

Cranio-maxillofacial trauma

This includes repair of soft tissue and skeletal injuries to the face, head, and neck.

These subspecialties typically require two years of additional training.

Training and Certification

The average total length of education and training after secondary school for an oral and maxillofacial surgeon is 12 to 14 years.

Typical training includes two to four years of undergraduate study, four years of dental study (DMD, BDent, DDS or BDS), and four to six years of residency training (six years includes two additional years for acquiring a medical degree).

After completion of surgical training most oral and maxillofacial surgeons undertake final specialty examinations. The certifying body in the United States is the American Board of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery (ABOMS). You can verify that an OMS is board-certified via the ABOMS.

Certified oral and maxillofacial surgeons are expected to maintain current standards through ongoing professional processes. This ensures that they remain up to date in their knowledge and skills and practice in a safe and contemporary manner.

Appointment Tips

Your dentist or health care provider may refer you to an OMS. You can also find one using the "Find a Surgeon" feature on the American Academy of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeons website. Some OMS practices require a referral, and patients may need a referral to take full advantage of their insurance policies. Medical and dental insurance policies may refuse to cover treatment costs if their procedures aren't followed correctly. The question of whether insurance covers dental implants or wisdom teeth removal may be irrelevant if the policy requires a referral the patient didn't have.

The bottom line: It's never a bad idea to have a referral for oral surgery. A referral from a medical or dental professional helps ensure continuity of care before, during, and after the surgery. 

If you need oral surgery, it's often an outpatient procedure that requires local or general anesthesia. You'll likely return home shortly after your operation is completed. During any preliminary appointments, be sure to ask your doctor how to prepare for surgery—for instance, whether you'll need to fast the night before—and any important after-care information you'll need, such as how soon and what you can eat. Healing times vary based on the type of surgery. Though swelling and discomfort usually diminish after 48 hours, wisdom tooth extractions and other common surgeries often take one to two weeks to fully heal, while jaw surgery can take a month or more to completely heal.

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Article Sources

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Additional Reading

  • American Association of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeons. What We Do.

  • The American College of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeons. What is an OMS?