Oral medicine is a specialty within the field of dentistry that focuses on the oral health of patients with medically complex circumstances and is considered the place where dentistry and medicine intersect. It has only been a recognized dental specialty for a brief period having been added to the American Dental Association’s specialties in March 2020. Doctors of oral medicine are trained to diagnose and manage disorders and abnormalities of the mouth and jaw, as well as facial pain caused by neurological or musculoskeletal conditions, disorders involving smell and taste, and the oral manifestations of diseases and infections that also affect other parts of the body.
Although the mouth has always been included in medical examination and, historically, the tongue has been perceived as an important indicator of health and disease, oral medicine became a subject of interest in the United States in the 1940s. These dentists were interested in the overlapping relationships between medicine and dentistry. Before it became a specialty, oral medicine was considered a subspecialty of periodontics, and certification in the field was pursued mostly by periodontists. Oral medicine focuses on the diagnosis and treatment of diseases and infections that are not dental in nature but that affect the lower face and the mouth, specifically seeking treatments and management methods that are non-surgical in nature.
It is not uncommon for systemic diseases to have symptoms that are apparent in the face and mouth. These diseases may range in severity from bacterial infections to cancers, as well as pain conditions like migraines. Oral medicine specialists treat infections and diseases that appear in the mouth, and they also treat patients with systemic diseases that have related side effects that manifest in the mouth and jaw, such as degeneration of the jawbone that may develop due to radiation therapies for cancers. They may also be consulted for treatment of certain other less-common conditions in the mouth and face, including dry-mouth conditions and chronic oral and facial pain conditions, and they may treat larger skin conditions that also manifest in the soft tissues of the mouth.
Lumps, swelling, and lesions in the tissues of the mouth are very common ailments that may be diagnosed and managed by oral medicine specialists. These manifest most commonly on the gums, palate, or tongue, and they may be caused by disease, trauma, hormonal fluctuations, infection, or one of many other causes. Specialists evaluate the history of the patient and conduct an oral examination, thoroughly assessing the location and characteristics of the area of concern. The specialist may further evaluate the area with imaging techniques like MRI, ultrasound, or other advanced imaging technologies, and through blood tests and biopsy.
To become a certified oral medicine specialist, dentists must first be licensed to practice dentistry. After graduating from an accredited oral medicine program, specialists must complete a residency of at least 18 months before sitting for an examination administered by the American Board of Oral Medicine. Between postgraduate education and residency, oral medicine programs take about 3 years to complete. Many oral medicine specialists elect to teach dental students at the graduate level, passing on important skills and innovations in a relatively recent field.