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10 Common Dental Terms

Updated: Jun 8, 2023


Despite their size, our teeth are quite complicated in structure and function. So naturally, the terminology used by dentists and dental professionals is equally complex. To help you better understand your dental health and make informed decisions, we've compiled a list of 10 common dental terms and what they mean. After all, knowledge is power.

1. Crown

Anatomically, the crown is the part of the tooth that lies above the gum line. It is the chewing surface of your teeth. But when speaking about crowns, your dentist may be referring to an artificial replacement that restores missing tooth structure or is placed on a dental implant. Artificial crowns can be composed of metal, ceramic, polymer, or a combination of these materials (i.e. porcelain fused metal). A dental crown is recommended to protect a broken, root canal treated or heavily decayed tooth. Crowns can also be used to improve the appearance of misshapen or badly discoloured teeth.

2. Enamel

The enamel is the outermost layer of your tooth. Enamel is composed of hard calcified tissue. Your tooth's enamel is the hardest and most highly mineralized substance in the body. The enamel is normally the only visible dental tissue. It plays an important role in protecting your teeth from decay because enamel forms a strong barrier that protects the inner layers of your teeth from the effects of acids and plaque; it also protects the sensitive inner layers of your teeth from foods and beverages that are very hot or very cold. Unlike other parts of your body - like your bones, for instance - enamel does not contain any living cells, so it cannot regenerate. If your enamel is destroyed, your body does not make more to replace it. You can protect your tooth's enamel by brushing twice a day and flossing to remove bacteria and prevent the buildup of plaque and calculus.

Enamel cannot regenerate.

3. Graft

In general terms, a graft is a piece of tissue or alloplastic material placed in contact with another tissue to repair a defect or supplement a deficiency. In dentistry, a gingival or gum graft is recommended to address gum recession. If left untreated, gum recession can lead to infection or tooth loss. Gum recession may be due to long-term aggressive brushing or the result of gum disease. Bacterial buildup and chronic inflammation in the mouth can erode gum tissue and expose the roots of your teeth. Gum recession can present symptomatically as tooth sensitivity! There a few different techniques dentists can employ to reconstruct the gums. The procedure involves taking tissue from a donor site on the roof of the mouth and attaching it to a recipient site where there is gum recession.

4. Implant

A dental implant is a device that is placed surgically in the jaw bone to replace a missing tooth or teeth. Dental implants are the gold standard for tooth replacement. The implant acts as the missing roots of the tooth. The crown that goes on top of the implant looks nearly identical to a real tooth. The completed structure blends seamlessly with your smile. Also, when the implant is placed, your body will naturally start to strengthen the bone in the surrounding area through a process called osseointegration, thus preserving the jaw structure. Replacing your missing tooth with an implant ensures your jaw and cheeks retain their function and appearance.

You can read more about dental implants here.


5. Plaque

Plaque is a soft, sticky substance that accumulates on teeth composed largely of bacteria and bacterial derivatives. Plaque formation can begin as quick at 4 to 12 hours after brushing. Plaque is the main cause of cavities and gum disease and can harden into tartar if not removed daily. The bacteria in plaque produce acids that attack and erode the tooth's enamel causing cavities. Plaque that is not removed can also irritate the gums around your teeth, leading to gingivitis (red, swollen, bleeding gums), periodontal disease and tooth loss. You protect your teeth against the harmful effects of plaque by brushing twice daily and flossing.

6. Reline

Relining is the process of resurfacing the tissue side of a removable prosthesis (such as a denture) with a new base material. Relining a denture is an affordable option to improve the fit against your gums. The fit of dentures can change and become uncomfortable over time. This occurs because once a tooth is extracted, the bone and tissue surrounding the missing tooth are resorbed by the body, thus changing the shape of the gums. Denture reline can be completed at the dental office or dental lab. When considering relining your denture to improve comfort and fit, discuss your wants and needs with your dentist to ensure you choose the best option.

7. Root Canal

The root canal is the chamber in the root of the tooth which contains dental pulp. The dental pulp is highly vascularized loose connective tissue which delivers nutrients to the tooth. Dental pulp makes the tooth structure more resilient, less brittle, and less prone to fracture. The root canal also houses the nerves of the tooth which allows you to feel hot, cold, and pressure sensations. In laymen's terms, a root canal may be referring to root canal therapy or endodontic treatment. Root canal therapy is the removal of the tooth's infected pulp. Once the damaged, diseased or dead pulp is removed, the remaining space is cleaned, shaped and filled to seal off the root canal. As there is no longer a pulp keeping the tooth alive, root canal treated teeth can become brittle and are more prone to fracture. Dentists often recommend adding a crown to root canal treated teeth to strengthen their structural integrity.


8. Scaling

Dental scaling is the removal of plaque, calculus, and stain from teeth. You may know it better as a "dental cleaning". It is a preventive treatment recommended at three- to six-month intervals for the maintenance of healthy tissue. Dental scaling is usually performed by a dental hygienist with manual hand instruments, ultrasonic instruments or both. The ultrasonic scaling device removes tartar (calculus), plaque and biofilm from the tooth surface and underneath the gum line. A manual instrument may be used next to remove the remaining buildup.

9. Temporomandibular Joint (TMJ)

The TMJ is connecting hinge mechanism between the base of the skull (temporal bone) and the lower jaw (mandible). This joint allows the jaw to open and close and to move from side to side. Temporomandibular joint dysfunction (TMD) is the abnormal functioning of this joint. TMJ is one of the most complex joints in the body; it is comprised of muscles, ligaments, discs, and bones. A misfunction in any one of these areas can keep the TMJ from working as it should. Those suffering from TMD may report a limited range of motion in opening, jaw popping or clicking noises, headaches, and facial pain. Treatment for TMD varies based on the severity of the case but may include massage therapy, oral splints or mouth guards, or Botox injections.

10. Veneers

Veneers are a thin covering attached to the front of the tooth to improve its appearance. Veneers can be made from porcelain or composite materials depending on your specific needs. When done right, veneers are nearly undetectable because the material mimics your tooth enamel and the dentist can build in slight "imperfections" to make them look hyper-realistic. Veneers can be used to correct certain minor flaws, and leave others intact so your smile retains its character. Another benefit is that there is no downtime when getting veneers and they can last up to 20 years.

If you are ever unclear about what a particular dental term means, be sure to speak up and ask your dentist to explain it in simpler terms. Understanding your dental needs and concerns is the first step toward getting a smile you've always wanted.

Dental Grants can help cover up to 30% on dental treatment including implants, dentures, braces & more. Apply for your grant today.

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