A simple answer to this question is the obvious a general dentist is a dentist that does what most dentists generally do. Do general dentists do what dental specialists do?
The answer is sometimes yes.
There are five areas of dentistry recognized by the ADA . They are oral surgery, periodontics, pedodontics, prosthodontics, orthodontics, dental radiologist, & endodontists.
General dentists cannot, without approved graduate school training and testing, say they are a specialist in any of these areas. Some general dentists will limit their practice to a particular area of expertise like wisdom teeth removal, or root canals etc. There are some areas of expertise that have been proposed to the ADA for specialty status like implantology, craniofacial pain, and dental sleep apnea. There are a lot of politics involved within the ADA and established dental specialties that, to this point, have not been resolved for granting specialty status to these and other areas. Short of a general dentist selling or closing his practice and going back to school for two to three years to become a traditional specialist in some area, the dentist may attend postgraduate training courses to expand his knowledge in certain areas. There are also academies of special interest areas of dentistry that a dentist can join and associate with to excel in certain areas.
I will use myself for an example of what I have been talking about. I am a general dentist that sees patients and I provide all the services that are routine for a dental office like exams, x-rays, cleanings, fillings, crowns, root canals, extractions, dentures, implants, etc. I also have taken nearly 1000 hours of postgraduate training in TMJ, head and neck pain, trigger point release techniques, physical therapy remedies and dental sleep apnea treatments. I have earned fellowship status with the American Academy of Craniofacial Pain and diplomat status with the American Academy of Dental Sleep Medicine, & and board certification with the American Board of Dental Sleep Medicine. I am a general dentist.