Oral and maxillofacial pathology

The mouth is a complex and fundamental organ that serves multiple functions and is prone to a variety of disorders. Oral pathology is the field of study that describes diseases of the mouth, while maxillofacial pathology describes diseases of the jaws and their joints, the salivary glands, and the tissues and muscles that surround and support these structures. Oral and maxillofacial pathology is a specialty of dentistry that focuses on diagnosing, studying, and treating diseases of these oral and maxillofacial structures. Because of the anatomical focus of oral and maxillofacial pathology, there is often overlap between oral and maxillofacial pathologies and endocrine pathologies, which concern diseases of the endocrine, or hormonal, system.


All diagnoses begin with a thorough assessment of the history of the patient, including medical and social factors, as well as an analysis of any risk factors that may be present. Once this assessment is complete, diagnosis involves a thorough physical examination of the inside and outside of the mouth. This examination may include investigative tools, such as screening, imaging, and biopsy. While the combination of history and clinical investigation may elicit a definitive diagnosis and clear treatment plan, ethical pathology practice necessitates the listing of differential diagnoses that may encourage additional investigation.

Oral and maxillofacial pathology addresses diseases of many of the varying types of tissues of the head. The mouth, jaws, and skin of the mouth area and face are the primary tissues that are addressed in oral and maxillofacial pathology; multiple diseases can affect these tissues, some of which are more common than others. Some of the more well-known diseases include cleft lip and palate; bacterial diseases like gingivitis and periodontitis; viral diseases like herpes and mumps; fungal diseases like candidiasis; traumatic ulceration; cancers of the tongue or other oral tissues; and other pathologies whose origins are not known.


Oral and maxillofacial pathology is considered a specialty of both dentistry and pathology and is closely associated with both oral and maxillofacial surgery and with oral medicine, two other disciplines of dentistry. The American Dental Association describes the field of oral and maxillofacial pathology as a dentistry specialty that identifies and manages diseases that affect the oral and maxillofacial regions, scientifically investigating the processes, causes, and results of these diseases. Programs in oral and maxillofacial pathology train specialists to use diagnostic microscopy and molecular chemistry to diagnose and treat patients with primarily nonsurgical treatment methods, and they also encourage collaboration in research projects that are both scientific and clinical in nature. Oral and maxillofacial pathology programs require a three-year internship following completion of the D.D.S. or D.M.D. degree, followed by a board certification examination. Specialists must pursue continuing education following certification so that they can remain informed about advancement in diagnosis technologies and treatment methods.


Career options for oral and maxillofacial pathologists include working in private or federal medical research laboratories, working in academia, or working in a private practice. Specialists must foster their written communication and interpersonal skills to assist in description of diseases and their characteristics, and they must be extremely attuned to fine detail, capable of excellent critical thinking, and exceedingly patient. The field of oral and maxillofacial pathology is growing, with salaries averaging about $150,000 a year.