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Basic Dental Terminology for Receptionists and the Front Office Team

We are strong advocates that you DO NOT NEED TO HAVE DENTAL EXPERIENCE TO WORK IN A DENTAL OFFICE. You do need to have a great smile and willingness to work with people. If you have your customer service skills down, learning the rest will come with time. With that said, sometimes, it can feel like learning another language when you hear the dentists talk with the hygienists and/or reading patient account notes. If you are new to dental there are many basic dental terms that you will hear in a dental office daily that you need to know and understand.

We’ve broken down a few basic dental terms into categories to help you at the front office:

Appointment Abbreviations:

  • NP – shorthand for New Patient and is when the patient has never been seen by your office before.
  • FMX – Full mouth X-rays – 20 images composed of 16 periapical and 4 bitewing images.
  • BW – x-rays that show teeth above the gum line and the height of the bone between teeth. Bitewings help diagnose gum disease and cavities between teeth. The bitewing X-ray is placed on the tongue side of your teeth and held in place by biting down on a tab. Normally four bitewings are taken as a set.
  • VBW – Vertical Bitewings – these are similar to the regular bitewing x-rays but are turned vertically to show more of the teeth and the height of the bone between teeth. With vertical bitewings, typically 7 images are taken as a set.
  • Occlusal – Occlusal x-rays show the roof or floor of the mouth and are used to find extra teeth, teeth that have not yet broken through the gums, jaw fractures, a cleft palate, cysts, abscesses or growths.
  • PAN – Panoramic x-rays, just like panoramic photos, are used to take images of your entire mouth area. It shows the position of fully emerged, emerging, and impacted teeth, all in one image.
  • PA– A periapical (PA) X-ray refers to a single X-ray that is taken to show a specific area of concern.
  • TXP – Treatment Plan – The dentist’s plan for the patient that outlines exactly what dental services is recommended and in what timeframe

Hygiene Terminology:

  • Prophy – Prophylaxis – A “prophy” or “cleaning” is a hygiene service for someone that generally has healthy gums and teeth. Prophylaxis involves removing plaque, calculus & stains from teeth.
  • SRP – Scaling and Root Planing – (sometimes called a Deep Cleaning or Perio Therapy) is a deep cleaning below the gumline used to treat gum disease. Root planing is a procedure that involves removing tartar, bacteria, and toxic deposits from the root of a tooth, all the way down to where the gum attaches to the tooth.
  • Perio – periodontal disease (gum disease) – Periodontal disease is an inflammatory disease that affects the soft (gum tissue) and hard structures (bone) that support the teeth.

Dental Insurance Terms:

  • Balance Billing – Billing a patient for the difference between the dentist’s actual charge and the amount reimbursed under the patient’s dental benefit plan.
  • Co-Payment – Beneficiary’s share of the dentist’s fee after the benefit plan has paid.
  • Coverage – Benefits available to an individual covered under a dental benefit plan.
  • Deductible – Sometimes referred to as co-insurance is the amount the patient is responsible for paying before services are covered by their insurance plan.

Watch this short video with Laura interviewing Danni as they discuss additional insurance terms like HMO vs PPO, what in-network means versus out of network.

YouTube video
  • Maximum Plan Benefit – The reimbursement level determined by the administrator of a dental benefit plan for a specific dental procedure. This may vary widely by geographic region or by benefit plans within a region.
  • Flexible Spending Account – Employee reimbursement account primarily funded with employee designated salary reductions.
  • HIPAA – Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) of 1996; A federal law that includes Administrative Simplification Provisions that require all health plans, including ERISA, as well as health care clearinghouses and any dentist who transmits health information in an electronic transaction, to use a standard format.

Dental Procedures:

Dental procedures and diagnosis can sometimes be referred to with a clinical terminology that not everyone knows prior to working in the dental office. Here are a few of those dental terms:

  • Abscess – Acute or chronic localized inflammation, probably with a collection of pus, associated with tissue destruction and, frequently, swelling; usually secondary to infection.
  • Biopsy – Process of removing tissue for histologic evaluation.
  • Cavity – Missing tooth structure. A cavity may be due to decay, erosion or abrasion
  • Crown (Cap) – An artificial replacement that restores missing tooth structure by surrounding the remaining coronal tooth structure, or is placed on a dental implant.
  • Dental Implant – A device specially designed to be placed surgically within or on the mandibular or maxillary bone as a means of providing for dental replacement.
  • Endo – Endodontic – Root Canal – Root canal treatment is a procedure to relieve dental pain and save your teeth, typically needed when there is inflammation or infection in the roots of a tooth.The procedure removes the pulp inside the tooth, cleans, disinfects and shapes the root canals, and places a filling to seal the space.
  • Extraction – removing a tooth (whole or in parts)
  • Fracture – The breaking of a part, especially of a bony structure; breaking of a tooth.
  • Gingivitis – Inflammation of gingival tissue without loss of connective tissue.
  • HX – Hx refers to ‘history’ as in a patient’s medical history.
  • Impacted tooth – An unerupted or partially erupted tooth that is positioned against another tooth, bone, or soft tissue so that complete eruption is unlikely.
  • Malocclusion – incorrect position of biting or chewing surfaces of the upper and lower teeth
  • Maxilla – the upper jaw
  • Mandible – the lower jaw.
  • Permanent Tooth Numbers – Dental charts are normally arranged from the viewpoint of a dental practitioner facing a patient. The patient’s right side appears on the left side of the chart, and the patient’s left side appears on the right side of the chart. Therefore, teeth numbers 1 – 16 are on the upper jaw, right to left. Teeth numbers 17 – 32 are in the lower jaw, left to right. Teeth numbers 1, 16, 17, and 32 are your wisdom teeth.
  • Primary Tooth Letters – These are the first teeth to erupt into the mouth. The primary dentition is comprised of 20 teeth. Often these teeth are referred to as deciduous teeth or baby teeth. The teeth are usually recognized by a letter of the alphabet beginning with “A” (Maxillary right second molar) and ending with “T” (Mandibular right second molar).

Tooth Surfaces:

  • Distal – The surface that is away from the midline of the face.
  • Facial – The surface on anterior that faces the cheeks or lips. Can also use the terms:
    • Buccal – The surface on posterior teeth that face the cheeks.
  • Incisal – The biting edge of an anterior tooth.
  • Lingual – The surface that faces the tongue.
  • Mesial – The surface that is closest to the midline of the face.
  • Occlusal – The chewing surface of posterior teeth.
  • Proximal – Tooth surfaces that are next to each other

Types of Dental Specialists:

  • Endodontist – Specializes in Root Canal Therapy
  • Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeon – Specializes in surgeries of the mouth, jaw and face
  • Orthodontist – Specializes in Braces & Alignment of the teeth & jaw
  • Pediatric Dentist – Specializes in Children’s Dentistry
  • Periodontist – Specializes in Gums and supporting structures
  • Prosthodontist – Specializes in Replacement of teeth

This list of common dental terms doesn’t cover every single term you’ll ever hear, but it’s a good start. We recommend talking with your Office Manager and Dentist to find out if they have a list of common terms or if you come across an unfamiliar term, ask!

Your role as a dental receptionist is to be the front lines of communication with patients so the more you know, the more you can answer any questions a patient may have.

Laura Nelson

Laura Nelson, BS, MS, FAADOM is the founder and driving force behind Front Office Rocks, and the leading provider of on-demand virtual training and resources for dental practices.