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Have you ever left the dentist’s office feeling more confused about your teeth than when you arrived? This glossary can help guide you through your next dental appointment and give you a better understanding of oral self-care, conditions, and procedures.

Abrasion: Tooth wear caused by improper brushing or excessively forceful use of toothpicks or floss. Holding objects between the teeth or frequently placing and removing a dental appliance may also cause abrasion.

Abutment: A tooth or implant that supports an artificial device (fixed prosthesis such as a bridge). Anchored to the abutment, the prosthesis replaces a tooth or teeth.

Amalgam filling: A mixture of mercury, silver, tin, and copper used to fill cavities. This combination is very durable, easy to use, and highly resistant to wear, but is not as natural looking as other types of restorations.

Bleaching: Whitening teeth with one of a variety of products or procedures, either at home or in the dentist’s office.

Bonding: A resin applied to change the shape or colour of a tooth or fill a cavity.

Bridge: A device that replaces missing teeth by crowning the adjacent ones. It is cemented to surrounding teeth for support.

Bruxism: Clenching (tightly holding the top and bottom teeth together) or grinding (sliding teeth back and forth) while sleeping or awake. Sometimes caused by stress or even sleep disorders, bruxism puts pressure on the tissues around your jaw and can wear down your teeth.

Calculus: A hard deposit of mineralized material sticking to crowns or roots of teeth. This deposit gradually develops when a sticky film of bacteria on teeth mixes with the minerals in saliva and is allowed to harden over time.

Caries: Tooth decay or cavities, which develop when food left on teeth destroy enamel. Bacteria thrive on the sugar in foods, releasing an acid that eats away at the teeth over time.

Crown: A restoration that covers or “caps” a tooth.

Dentures: Artificial teeth that are placed in your mouth after the remaining teeth are removed.

Dry socket: A condition that sometimes occurs when a blood clot comes out of a socket after a tooth is removed before the socket has had time to heal. A dry socket can be very painful for several days.

Enamel: The hard, calcified, outside layer of a tooth.

Gingivitis: Inflammation of the gums that surround teeth.

Halitosis: Bad breath caused by certain foods or beverages, poor dental hygiene, dry mouth, tobacco, or an underlying health condition.

Impacted tooth: A tooth — often a wisdom tooth — that is partly or completely blocked from surfacing. A tooth may be blocked by another tooth, bone, or soft tissue.

Implant: A device that is surgically placed in the bone to support a prosthesis or replace missing teeth. Because it’s fused to the bone, an implant provides stable support for individual replacement teeth, bridges, or dentures.

Malocclusion: Misalignment of teeth and jaws.

Palate: The hard and soft tissues that make up the roof of the mouth.

Plaque: A soft, sticky film of bacteria that accumulates on teeth. Unless teeth are regularly cleaned with brushing and flossing, plaque releases acids that attack tooth enamel and can eventually result in cavities.

Pulp: The tissue inside the center of the tooth, which contains blood vessels and nerves.

Retainer: A custom device made of plastic and/or metal, and used to stabilize the position of teeth, often after braces are removed.

Root canal therapy: Treatment of infected or traumatized pulp, which runs down through the root. A root canal involves the removal of the diseased or injured pulp to prevent infection and tooth loss. Then the dentist cleans and seals off the chamber within the root of the tooth, and places a crown over the tooth to strengthen it.

Scaling: A procedure used to remove plaque, calculus, or stains from the teeth.

Sealant: A thin bonded coating applied to the chewing surfaces of back or molar teeth to protect them from decay.

Temporomandibular joint disorder (TMJ disorder): A condition that may cause jaw, facial, head, or neck pain. It can also cause a clicking or popping sound when opening the mouth. TMD may result from stress and teeth grinding, injury, arthritis, or other diseases.

Veneer: A thin tooth covering placed on the front sides of teeth to improve gaps or cover stained, badly shaped, or crooked teeth. A veneer may be made of porcelain, ceramic, composite, or acrylic resin.

Wisdom teeth: The four rearmost molars on each side of the upper and lower jaw, which are the last to erupt, usually around age 20. They sometimes need to be removed when they are impacted, cause pain, infection, damage to nearby teeth, or other problems.

Medical Reference Reviewed by Michael Friedman, DDS on October 10, 2019


American Dental Association: “Dictionary of Dental Terms”  and “Oral Health Topics.”

Harvard Health Publications: “Medical Dictionary of Health Terms: A-C.”

Nemours Foundation: “About Bruxism” and “The Reality of Retainers.”

CDC: “Dental Sealants.”