Simple Steps To Better Dental Health
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Featuring consumer information from Columbia School of Dental & Oral Surgery
Oral Health Made Simple: Your Prescription For Knowledge
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Illustration created by Simple Steps designer Lynda Buchhalter

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You're sitting in the dental chair and you hear your dentist tell his chairside assistant, "We're going to be doing the buccal of number 14 today." You know you're scheduled to have a cavity filled, but what's a buccal?

That's one of several words dentists use to refer to the various sides and surfaces of a tooth. Learn them, and next time your dentist's words may make more sense.

Here's how dentists refer to the tooth's surfaces:

Buccal or facial or labial — This is the tooth surface that faces the outside of your mouth. It's also what people can see when they look at you. The tooth surface that is closest or next to your cheek is called the buccal surface. In teeth that are closer to the front of the mouth, this surface is closer to the lips and is called the labial surface. Facial is an "umbrella" term that refers to both the buccal and labial surfaces.

Lingual or palatal — This is the surface of a tooth that is closest or next to your tongue. On your upper teeth, this is called the palatal surface. On your lower teeth, it's called the lingual surface.

Mesial and distal — The mesial and distal surfaces are the sides that come into contact with adjacent teeth. They are also called proximal surfaces. The mesial side faces the front of the mouth. The distal side faces the back of the mouth.

Occlusal — You might think of this as the "top" of a tooth. It's the surface of the back (molar and premolar) teeth that is used for biting or chewing.

Cusps — The parts of the occlusal surface that are raised.

Grooves — The parts of the occlusal surface that are indented.

Furcation — The part of the tooth where the roots come together. This area usually is under the gum and bone.

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