Dental Terminology 101

When you go to the dentist you probably hear your dentist or hygienist rattle off what seem to be random numbers and letters that probably sound like a foreign language. Dental terminology really isn’t all that difficult to understand once you understand a few basic concepts.

  1. Tooth Numbers

As adult humans we have 32 teeth and each tooth is has a number assigned to it. Your upper right tooth (the wisdom tooth) is tooth #1. The numbering system works its way forward along the arch (your two front teeth are #8 and #9) and continues to the upper left wisdom tooth which is tooth #16. Tooth #17 is the wisdom tooth on the lower left side and the numbers increase as they work their way along the arch all the way to the lower right wisdom tooth (#32).

Dr. Joe Bousaba in Richmond, Virginia explains the numbering system for teeth.
Upper arch teeth numbers. This patient has had her wisdom teeth removed therefore she is missing teeth #1 and #16.

2. Tooth Surfaces

Teeth have five surfaces: Mesial, Distal, Buccal, Lingual, and Occlusal (explanations below). These surfaces help us to communicate the location of a cavity or fracture. Often times the surfaces are abbreviated by using the first letter of the surface name. For example, the Occlusal surface is often expressed by the letter “O” for short.

Mesial – The side of the tooth closer to the midline (the midline of the arch is between teeth #8 and #9 on the upper and between #24 and #25 on the lower)

Distal – The side of the tooth away from the midline

Buccal – The side of the tooth facing the cheek

Lingual – The side of the tooth facing the tongue

Occlusal – The biting surface of the tooth

3. Material

There are lots of materials used in dentistry, but the most common materials that we encounter on a daily basis are Amalgam, Composite, Porcelain, and Metals. Amalgams are silver fillings that are a mix of different metals. Composites are tooth colored fillings. Porcelain is a tooth colored material often used in crowns, partial crowns, or veneers. Metals, most commonly gold, are often used on crowns or partial crowns.

These three concepts are the foundation for communication in dentistry. The next time you hear dental terminology such as “MO composite on tooth #12” or “O cavity on tooth #31” you’ll have an idea of what we’re talking about!

Joe Bousaba, DMD

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