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Glossary of Dental Terms

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Abrasion — Wearing away of tooth structure, usually from tooth brushing or other mechanical means, such as holding objects between the teeth.

Abfraction — The notch sometimes seen at the gumline on a tooth. It was previously thought to be caused by poor brushing habits, but now is believed to be caused by excessive bite forces placed on the tooth over an extended period of time.

Amalgam — An alloy containing mercury, silver, zinc, copper and tin, commonly used as a dental filling material.

Analgesic — A drug that relieves pain.

Anaesthesia — In dentistry, complete loss of feeling in a specific area of the mouth usually by injection.

Anterior — A position located in front of something else.  It also refers to the front of the mouth, typically any tooth that is located ahead of the first bucuspid location, i.e. the cuspids and the incisors.

Bicuspid — An adult tooth which replaces a primary molar, usually with 2 cusps, located posterior to the cuspids and anterior to the molars. Also referred to as a premolar.

Bilateral — Occurring on both the right and left sides.

Bitewings — X-rays taken of the crowns of both the upper and lower teeth, specifically for the detection of decay. The x-ray films are held in the mouth by biting on the x-ray holder.

Bleaching (Internal) — A process of whitening a dark tooth that has previously undergone root canal therapy.  A cotton pellet soaked in bleach is placed inside the tooth until the colour changes.

Bleaching (External) — A cosmetic whitening of the teeth by a chemical process.  Bleaching solution is applied to the teeth either at home using a tray system, or in a dental office.

Bonding — A white filling (composite resin) attached to a tooth. It is used to change either the colour or shape of the tooth. Bonding also refers to the process by which a filling or orthodontic bracket is attached to a tooth.

Bridge — A permanent replacement for missing teeth which consists of crowns on teeth adjacent to spaces and artificial teeth that replace missing ones, joined together and cemented into the mouth as a single piece. Bridges are not removable.

Bruxism — Grinding of teeth, usually at night, which results in the wearing away of tooth structure and/or muscle soreness or joint pain.

Calculus — Calcified, mineralized plaque deposits on teeth which cause periodontal disease and gingivitis.

Caries, Cavity — Tooth decay. A progressive decalcification of the enamel and dentin of a tooth.

Cementum — Thin layer of calcified tissue which covers the root of a tooth. It forms part of the periodontium.

Cerec — A digitally produced inlay, onlay or crown that can be completed in a single dental visit. Old fillings and weak portions of the tooth are removed. A digital image is taken and a replacement, jigsaw puzzle, piece is designed on a computer and then milled in the office from a block of porcelain. The piece is then cemented into the tooth. The advantages of the cerec are its ability to be completed in a single visit and the fact that more of the sound tooth is retained than occurs with a traditional, porcelain-fused-to-metal crown.

Composite — A resin-based white dental restorative material, commonly used to restore anterior teeth.

Conscious Sedation — A chemically induced state of wakefulness, induced either through intravenous or oral methods, in which the patients can breathe and swallow on their own but are not completely aware of what is happening around them.

Crown — A crown is often referred to as a “cap” and is an artificial covering for a tooth made of gold, porcelain, or a combination of both. Crowns are used to strengthen a tooth that has lost a large portion of its tooth structure, to restore proper chewing function or for the improved appearance of a tooth.

Cusp — The pointed portion of a tooth. Molars have 4 cusps, bicuspids (or premolars) have 2.

Cuspid — Located on the corners of the mouth, usually the longest tooth in the mouth and often referred to as the "eye tooth".


Dental Prophylaxis — The preventative procedures typically performed at a check-up or dental hygiene appointment which include a polishing of the teeth and a fluoride treatment.

Dentin — That portion of the tooth that is covered by enamel and cementum. Dentin makes up the largest type of material in a tooth. Once decay has gone through the enamel layer into the dentin, a filling is needed to stop the decay process.

Enamel — The hard, white, outside layer of a tooth.

Endodontist — A dentist who specializes in root canal therapy. To become a certified endodontist, a general dentist must spend 3-4 additional years of specialized education.

Erosion — The wearing away of the enamel of a tooth, usually caused by acids.

Filling — A common term used for a dental restoration. Fillings are used to replace tooth structure that has broken away or decayed and are typically made of metal, plastic, resin or porcelain.

Gingiva — The pink tissues that surround the necks of teeth and that covers the bone that supports them, typically referred to as the "gums".

Gingivitis — A reversible inflammation of the gum tissues, cause by plaque. Gingivitis is the most common form of gum disease, characterized by bleeding, red, swollen gums. If not reversed, gingivitis can lead to a more serious, destructive form of gum disease called periodontitis, or periodontal disease.

Graft — The placement of a piece of tissue which replaces one that was lost or that was never present. Gum grafts replace gum that has worn away or build up tissue that is lacking in thickness or size. Bone grafts are typically seen in implant sites where extra bone is required to support the implant. Grafts can be donated from the patient or be artificial.

Incisor — One of the four top or four bottom front teeth. They each have a single root and one narrow biting edge.

Impacted Teeth — Teeth that are unable to erupt through the gum tissue because they are blocked by another tooth or bone. This term is most often used to describe wisdom teeth that cannot come through the gum to function in chewing, but applies to any tooth that is "stuck" under the gum.

Implant — A root-shaped screw, usually made of titanium, that is placed in the upper or lower jaw. Implants replace one or more teeth and act as anchors to which crowns, bridges or dentures can be attached.

Intravenous Sedation (IV) — The injection of a sterile medication into a vein to induce conscious sedation. The medication is usually a form of Valium given in the arm. Patients are able to respond to simple commands but are unaware of what is happening and do not remember anything of the procedure afterwards.


Lingual — An adjective used to describe anything to do with the tongue. It also refers to the side of a tooth closest to the tongue, or the "inside" of the mouth.

Malocclusion — A term used to describe the way a person's jaws and teeth bite together in any manner that does not fall into an ideal position. This forms an improper alignment of the biting and chewing surfaces of the upper and lower teeth.

Mandible — The lower jaw bone. It is the only movable bone of the face.

Molar — One of the back teeth used for grinding of food. Molars are the largest teeth in the mouth with 3 roots and 4 cusps in adults. There are usually 3 molars on each side of the mandible and maxilla, for a total of 12. The third molars are often referred to as "wisdom teeth". In primary dentition, i.e. baby teeth, there are 2 molars in each area, instead of 3. Primary molars are replaced by adult bicuspids when they are lost, usually around the age of 11-13.

Mouthguard — An appliance, usually made of plastic, that is worn over the top or bottom teeth. It can be used for protection while playing sports or worn at night or during the day to prevent grinding of the teeth and subsequent Temporomandibular Joint (TMJ) problems.

Maxilla — The upper jaw, comprised of 2 bones which also form the base for most of the upper face, the roof of the mouth, the sides of the nasal cavity and the bottom of the eye socket. The upper teeth are supported by the alveolar process of the maxilla.

Occlusion — A term used to describe any contact between the upper and lower jaws, and how the teeth bite together.

Oral Surgeon/Maxillo-Facial Surgeon — A dentist who has undergone an additional 3-4 years of schooling in order to practice exclusively on patients requiring difficult extractions, implants, orthodontic surgery or treatment of the jaws and face that go beyond the scope of general dentistry. While technically all dentists are oral surgeons and can perform extractions and surgery, these specialists are often referred to as "oral surgeons".

Orthodontist — A dentist who has undergone an additional 3-4 years of schooling in order to practice orthodontics. A general dentist who practices orthodontics without the additional training is not a board certified orthodontist, but a dentist who limits his practice to orthodontics without being certified.


Paedodontist/Pedodontist — A dentist who has undergone an additional 3-4 years of schooling in order to practice exclusively on children.

Palate — The roof of the mouth, formed by the horizontal portions of the 2 bones of the maxilla.  It separates the nasal cavity from the mouth.

Panorex/Panograph — A panoramic x-ray taken of the entire upper and lower jaws, sinuses and temporomandibular joints. Often used to confirm the presence of third molars and cysts, and as a screening tool of adult dentition in children who may require orthodontic treatment.

Periodontal Disease — A destructive, progressive and incurable disease of the supporting tissues of the teeth, caused by dental plaque and calculus (tartar). Also known as gum disease, it is the single most common cause of tooth loss in adults. It destroys the bone around the teeth and the ligaments that hold the teeth in place. The gums are also red, swollen and bleed easily and pus can often be seen in the gum crevice around teeth. If treated early enough, it can be managed to prevent tooth loss, but it is never cured. It is caused by plaque which feeds on dietary sugars and starches, forming acids which then irritate the gums.

Periodontist — A dentist who has undergone an additional 3-4 years of schooling in order to limit his or her practice to the treatment of periodontal disease. A general dentist who practices periodontics without the additional training is not a board certified periodontist, but a dentist who limits his practice to the treatment of gum disease without being certified.

Periodontitis — Inflammation and/or degeneration of the supporting structures of the teeth (bone, cementum, ligaments and gingiva). Pus usually is present in the crevices around the teeth, bone melts away causing teeth to become loose and recession of the gum tissue can occur. Poor dental hygiene is the most common cause (see Periodontal Disease).

Plaque — A sticky, colourless film on the crowns of teeth and gums that reforms almost immediately following its removal. The longer it is left, the thicker it becomes and can then be seen as a white deposit. It is comprised of microorganisms that are the cause of both cavities and gum disease, but can be removed by mechanical means i.e. brushing and flossing. Dental plaque, if not removed, picks up minerals from food and saliva and calcifies into calculus (tartar). At this stage, it can no longer be removed by brushing and has to be scaled, or scaped off the teeth by a dental professional.

Posterior — A position located behind something else. It also refers to the back of the mouth, typically any tooth that is located behind the cuspid location, i.e. the premolars and molars.

Prosthodontist — A dentist who specializes in the placement of crowns and bridges.


Removable Complete Denture — An applicance that replaces all of the teeth on the upper or lower jaw, usually made from acrylic and held in place by suction against the palate or the lower alveolar bone.

Removable Partial Denture — An appliance that replaces one or more teeth on the upper or lower jaw, usually made from a combination of acrylic and metal and held in place by clasps which hold onto the patient's natural teeth. The appliance can be put in and taken out of the mouth at will and is therefore not what is considered a "permanent" replacement of teeth.

Root — That portion of the tooth located in the jaw bone that anchors the tooth in place. The root is covered by cementum into which the periodontal ligaments attach themselves.

Root Canal — A process by which a dentist or endodontist (root canal specialist) removes the nerve tissue from a tooth. The procedure involves hollowing out the canal in the root(s) in which the nerve is located and replacing it with a rubber material. The root of the tooth is not removed during a root canal. The patient retains the same use of the tooth, except that it has no feeling following the procedure.

Root Planing — A process usually performed by a Dental Hygienist or Periodontist that involves the removal of diseased cementum and calculus from the root surfaces of teeth. It can be performed either with hand instruments called scalers or with a mechanical device and is similar to scaling.

Scaling — Removal of plaque and calculus from the teeth. It is similar to root planing.

Tartar — A hardened form of plaque. If plaque is not removed from the teeth using good oral hygiene practices, it calcifies into calculus, also referred to as tartar.

Temporomandibular Joint (TMJ) — The hinge formed by the mandible (lower jaw bone) and the base of the skull (temporal bone).

Temporomandibular Joint Dysfunction — Any malfunction of the TMJ.

Temporomandibular Joint Syndrome — Severe aching and/or pain in or around the TMJ.  There may restricted movement of the joint on one or both sides of the mouth and clicking sounds while chewing. Ringing of the ears, pain and deafness may occur. It may be caused by a variety of conditions, including bruxing,  arthritis, malocclusion, injury, or poor fitting dentures. Treatment may involve the wearing of an appliance or night guard, physiotherapy, or surgery.

Veneer — A thin, tooth-coloured sheet of porcelain which is cemented to a tooth, used for cosmetic or restorative purposes. Veneers are usually applied to front teeth. They are a conservative restoration because they involve the removal of less tooth structure than a full crown.