Dental Terminology Every Student Should Know

Part of any dental assistant training is learning dental vocabulary and terminology. These terms help professionals be accurate and concise when talking about patients, their oral health, and procedures. Mastering these terms will prepare you to know what dental assistants and dentists are referring to and how to best do your job as a dental assistant. 

You will hear these most-used dental terms as part of your job as well as in your dental assistant program. 

Abrasion

This term refers to dental damage and wear not caused by chewing food. This can include chewing on objects or improper brushing. 

Abscess

Localized inflammation, acute or chronic, probably collecting pus. This is typically a result of infection and causes swelling and destruction of tissue. Treatment may involve draining the abscess or performing a root canal. 

Abutment

The connecting element that supports a dental implant and is typically made from titanium, gold, stainless steel, zirconia, or polyether ether ketone. Its role is to give the dental implant a secure place in the mouth to hold onto. 

Amalgam

A type of cavity filling combining an alloy mixture and liquid mercury. Amalgam is not used as frequently as other more durable and natural-looking and materials that have come into use. 

Anesthesia

Anesthesia creates controlled and temporary loss of sensation for a variety of reasons and ways. A dental assistant needs to be aware of:

  • General Anesthesia—a controlled instance of unconsciousness. This will include a partial or complete loss of reflexes. 
  • Local/Regional Anesthesia—the loss of feeling pain in a particular area while still conscious.
  • Analgesia—a controlled condition of depressed consciousness. The patient still has protective reflexes and is able to respond to verbal commands but feels a reduced amount of pain. 

Apicoectomy

Taking out the tip of a tooth’s root.

Appliance

This term refers to a removable device, like a bite guard or retainer, which is used to prevent damage to teeth or correct them.

Arch 

A dental arch is the crescent arrangement, or row, of teeth. There are two, usually one on each jaw.

Balance Billing

Billing a patient for the difference between the dentist’s actual charge and the amount reimbursed under the patient’s dental benefits plan. 

Basic Cleaning

Removing a normal amount of built-up plaque. Includes preventive treatment for healthy gum tissue. Patients with gum disease may require more advanced treatment. 

Bicuspid

A premolar tooth having two cusps. 

Bilateral

Anything that occurs or pertains to both the right and left side.
E.g., A bilateral prosthesis. 

Biopsy

The procedure of removing and testing tissue. Most typically performed as a gum or gingival biopsy. 

Bite-wing

An x-ray that displays the top and bottom teeth in one film. To hold the film in place against the outside of the teeth, the patient bites down on a small tab extending between the top and bottom teeth, which is where the name originates.

Bleaching

A cosmetic procedure to whiten teeth. This can come in a variety of forms and processes depending on the patient’s needs and the dentist’s recommendation.

Bonding

A composite resin put on a tooth to change its color, shape, or both. The term also refers to how partial dentures, orthodontic appliances, or fillings are attached to teeth. 

Calculus

Hardened plaque. It is caused by precipitation of minerals from saliva and gingival crevicular fluid. It can be removed with ultrasonic tools or hand instruments. 

Canine

One of the four teeth positioned between the lateral incisor and first premolar. The upper and lower jaws both have a canine on each side of the jaw.

Caries

A common term for decay in a tooth.

Cavity

Also called a carious lesion, a cavity is decay in tooth enamel and structure caused by caries.  

Cementum

The hard connective tissue that covers the root of a tooth.

Certified Dental Assistant (CDA)

A nationally certified dental assistant accredited through the Dental Assisting National Board. 

Copayment

The patient’s share of the dentist’s fee under a dental plan.

Composite

A restorative material made up synthetic resins.

Coverage

An individual’s benefits under a dental plan. 

Crown

A cover or cap that is placed over your tooth. It restores a tooth to its normal shape, size, and function. Crowns are used when a cavity is too large for a filling; the tooth is cracked, worn down, or otherwise weakened; or for cosmetic reasons. A crown can also be mounted on an implant to replace a missing tooth.

Cusp

The pointed part of a tooth. 

Cuspid

The single tooth located between the incisors and bicuspids. 

DDS / DMD

Doctor of Dental Surgery or Doctor of Medicine in Dentistry. A person who has received an advanced degree in dentistry and dental surgery.

Decay

Carious lesions in a tooth and the breakdown of tooth structure and strength. 

Dental Prophylaxis

A procedure of scaling and polishing to remove plaque, calculus, and stains above the root of the tooth. 

Dental Prosthesis

A device fabricated to replace one or more missing teeth. 

Dental Pulp

The connective tissue filling a tooth’s pulp cavity. It contains blood vessels and nerve tissues.

Dental Specialist

A dentist with postgraduate training in a recognized dental specialty.

Dentin

The part of the tooth underneath the enamel and cementum. 

Denture

A prosthetic substitute for natural teeth and the surrounding tissues. 

Denture Base

The part of a denture that fits over the gums and holds the artificial teeth. 

Direct Restoration

When all work for restoring a tooth is completed in the mouth.

Distal

The surface or portion of a tooth that is most distant from the median line of the arch. The portion of a tooth that faces the back of the mouth. 

Dry Mouth

A condition where a patient is unable to produce enough saliva to keep the mouth wet. Left untreated, it can lead to increased tooth decay and infections. 

Enamel

The hard, calcified tissue covering the tooth’s crown. The outermost layer of tissue on the crown. 

Endodontist

A dental specialist who treats diseases and injuries of the pulp and other conditions of the periradicular area the area around the root.

Erosion

Wearing down of the tooth structure. This is typically caused by acidic fluids. 

Excision

The surgical removal of tissue or bone. 

Exostosis

A bony outgrowth, or spur, from a tooth’s root or a bone. 

Extraction

Removing a tooth or parts of a tooth.

Filling

Restoring lost tooth structure using materials like porcelain, alloy, metal, or plastic. 

Fixed Appliances

Devices used in orthodontics that are bonded to the teeth in order to move and help reposition teeth. Commonly called braces.

Flexible Spending Account

An account primarily funded by employees to reduce their taxable income and set aside money to pay for medical, dental, and other healthcare-related expenses.  

Fracture

A break in a tooth or any bony structure.  

Full-Mouth X-Rays

A combination of 14 or more x-rays showing the teeth, including roots and the bone around them, and 4 bitewing x-rays of the back teeth. 

Gingiva

Soft tissues that encircle the necks of teeth that have erupted and cover the crowns of unerupted teeth. 

Gingivitis

Inflammation of gingival tissue without loss of connective tissue.

Graft

A piece of tissue or alloplastic material placed in contact with tissue to repair a defect or augment a deficiency. 

HIPAA – Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act

A federal law passed in 1996 that governs how confidential and protected health information is gathered, stored, transmitted and shared, and kept secure and private.

Immediate Denture

Prosthesis made to be placed immediately after removing the.remaining natural teeth.  

Impacted Tooth

An unerupted or partially erupted tooth set against another tooth, bone, or soft tissue, making complete eruption unlikely. 

Implant

A device specifically designed to be placed within or on the mandibular or maxillary bone for dental replacement. 

Impression

An imprint of the teeth and soft tissues of the mouth taken to prepare dentures, bridges, implants, and crowns. 

Incisor

The front teeth, four on each jaw, used for cutting and gnawing. 

Interproximal

Between the teeth.

Intraoral

Inside the mouth.

Jaw

The maxilla and the mandible are commonly called the upper and lower jawbones. 

Labial

Related to the lip or area around the lip.

Lesion

Injured, wounded, or diseased tissue. 

Lingual

Pertaining to the tongue. It also refers to the surface of the tooth that is directed toward the tongue, which is the opposite of facial. 

Malignant

Characterized by dysplasia, invasion, and metastasis. Typically refers to a very virulent or infectious disease. 

Malocclusion

Misalignment of upper and lower teeth. When the mouth is closed, the biting or chewing surfaces don’t line up.

Mandible

The lower jaw.

Maxilla

The upper jaw.

Maximum Plan Benefit

The reimbursement for a specific dental procedure as determined by a dental benefit plan administrator. It can also refer to the total dollar amount the plan will pay the dentist. The maximum benefit may include the cost of preventive services or be in addition to what the plan pays.

Molars

The teeth behind the premolars on either side of the jaw. With large crowns and broad chewing surfaces, they specialize in grinding. 

National Entry Level Dental Assistant (NELDA)

A national certification for dental assisting offered through the Dental Assisting National Board, Inc. 

Occlusal

Pertaining to the contacting surfaces of opposing teeth. It also refers to the biting surfaces of premolars and molars. 

Oral

Pertaining to the mouth.

Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeon

A specialist who focuses on the maxillofacial regions. This includes disease, injury, deformities, defects, and aesthetics. 

Orthodontist

A specialist who focuses on treating misaligned teeth and their surrounding structures. 

Overdenture

A prosthetic device that rests on natural teeth, tooth roots, or implants, and may be supported by them. An overdenture can be a partial or full denture and is removable. It helps preserve feeling in tooth roots, preserve the jawbone, and delay the complete loss of teeth.

Palate

The hard and soft tissues that form the roof of the mouth. 

Partial Denture

A prosthetic device to replace missing teeth but not the entire arch. 

Periodontal

Relating to the supporting and surrounding tissues of the teeth. 

Periodontal Abscess

An infection in the pocket that can form between the gum and tooth. The infection can destroy hard and soft tissues. 

Periodontal Disease

Inflammation of the gingival tissues and/or periodontal membrane of the teeth. As it progresses, it can cause the gums to pull away from the teeth and may produce periodontal pockets and loss of alveolar bone holding the tooth sockets. 

Periodontitis

Inflammation and loss of the connective tissue supporting or surrounding teeth. With the loss of the supporting structure, teeth may loosen or fall out. 

Plaque

A soft sticky substance composed of bacteria that accumulate on teeth. 

Prophylaxis

A procedure of scaling and polishing to remove plaque, calculus, and stains above the root of the tooth. 

Pulp

The connective tissue filling a tooth’s pulp cavity, it contains blood vessels and nerve tissues.

Radiograph

An x-ray. 

Registered Dental Assistant (RDA)

National certification offered through American Medical Technologists Association.  

Reline

Resurfacing the side of the denture in contact with the soft tissues of the mouth for a more secure fit. 

Removable Partial Denture (Removable Bridge)

Designed to replace one or more missing teeth, this prosthesis can be put in or removed as the wearer desires. 

Root

The portion of the tooth that is located in the alveolus (socket). 

Root Canal

The chamber in the tooth’s root that contains the pulp. While the term refers specifically to the portion of the pulp cavity inside the root, nothing separates the pulp inside the tooth’s corona and the pulp in the root. 

Scaling

Removing plaque, calculus, and stains from teeth. 

Sealants

Plastic resin applied to the biting surfaces of molars to keep bacteria from attacking the enamel and causing cavities.

Stomatitis

Inflammation in the membranes of the mouth and lips.

Submandibular Glands

The salivary glands beneath the tongue. 

Suture

A stitch to repair an incision or wound.

Temporary Removable Denture

A temporary prosthesis designed to be used for a limited time. Generally used while a denture is being constructed or between oral surgeries in preparation for dental prosthetics. 

Temporomandibular Joint (TMJ)

The connecting hinge between the temporal bone (base of the skull) and mandible (lower jaw). 

Unerupted

A tooth that has not penetrated into the oral cavity.

Veneer

A layer of tooth-colored material attached to the surface by direct fusion, cementation, or mechanical retention. 

Complete Your Dental Assistant Training

Having a mastery of dental terminology is an important part of a dental assistant certification program. Though much of the lingo is picked up on the job, failing to have the terms memorized can cause unnecessary tension in your learning curve and being understood by your team. CareerStep has resources and courses to help you become a knowledgeable and certified dental assistant.

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