The last teeth to develop can cause havoc for the rest of your healthy mouth. Yet there’s growing controversy about whether we really need to have them taken out.
Just as you enter adulthood, your wisdom teeth make their presence known in the far reaches of your mouth. Wisdom teeth — officially the third molars — are the last set of teeth to come in, usually between 17 and 25 years of age, in the so-called “age of wisdom.”
For some, these teeth come in fine. For many others, wisdom teeth don’t come in properly (if at all), are vulnerable to disease, and need to be removed to protect a healthy mouth. It’s estimated that 95 percent of American 18-year-olds “have wisdom teeth, and most of them have little if any chance to function in a normal manner”
So if wisdom teeth are virtually useless in millions of mouths, why do we have them? One theory lies in the mouths of our ancestors. Early humans needed an extra row of teeth to chew their food: a diet of uncooked, hard items like roots, nuts, and meat. but clearly the need for and utility of wisdom teeth in the past exceeds that of the need of today.
Although it’s uncommon, some people born today never develop wisdom teeth. Why? It’s likely because of the size reduction in our jaw and face over the past 20,000 years. Lack of wisdom teeth is more common in agricultural populations than in hunter-gatherers (like Aboriginal Australians) today.
Anatomy is at the root of most problems with wisdom teeth “Either jaws are too small or teeth themselves are too big for the jaw” This adds up to a crowded mouth. Mother Nature probably programmed third molars to come in during the late teens or twenties, when the jaw would be big enough for another set of molars.
But today, wisdom teeth often don’t cooperate with Mother Nature’s plan. Because of the lack of space, molars can grow sideways, only partially emerge from the gums (called “partially impacted wisdom teeth”), or get trapped in the gums and jawbone (“impacted wisdom teeth”). Partially impacted wisdom teeth are chronically contaminated with bacteria associated with infection, inflammation, tooth decay, and gum disease. Because they’re so far back in the mouth, it’s hard to keep them clean and get rid of the bacteria. Fully impacted wisdom teeth also can get infected and disturb the position of the other molars. These consequences can spread outside of the mouth, causing other health problems.
Even when wisdom teeth come in fully (“erupted” out of the gums), they can still pose a problem for a healthy mouth. Here, it’s all about location, location, location. The third molars are so far back in the mouth that it’s easy for food to get trapped, leading to more bad news: plaque, cavities, and gum disease, says Dodson. Many people just can’t reach them to brush and floss well enough.
How to manage your wisdom teeth is a decision to make with your dentist or oral surgeon. Getting them removed isn’t always a foregone conclusion if they are fully erupted and functional. Follow your dentist’s advice to stay free of gum disease. Because wisdom teeth are predisposed to problems, you’ll have to be vigilant about oral hygiene and keeping regular dental appointments. If wisdom teeth show signs of disease or decay, your dental health team will strongly suggest getting them removed.
Surgery is definitely an option for partially or fully impacted wisdom teeth, If you don’t get them out, they’ll need to be monitored very closely with regular dental exams, X-rays, and thorough periodontal cleanings for the rest of your life. Over time, this can be an expensive option, but on the other hand, this could just be part of the regular dental care you’d get for the other 28 anyway.
Despite your best efforts, you may end up needing your wisdom teeth removed eventually. It’s a common practice the world over. In 2009 showed that the percentage of wisdom teeth removed continued to increase in the years after the study was published.
It’s important to get wisdom teeth examined during your teens. Dentists and oral surgeons are able to determine whether the teeth will be functional or likely to cause problems down the road. If problems are suspected, “it is wise to remove [the tooth or teeth] before problems lead either to symptoms or damage that may not be repairable,” If the decision is made to take them out, do not wait. The surgery is usually less complicated in young people, he says, because the roots are less established and, in general, healing is easier.
What are the potential risks of wisdom teeth surgery? As with any surgery, infection is possible, and there are risks associated with anesthesia. Dodson says there’s a slight chance of nerve injury, but if that occurs, it’s usually a temporary problem. Immediately after the procedure, you’ll have pain and swelling, but your surgeon will suggest over-the-counter pain relievers and possibly prescribe a stronger painkiller, should you need one.
How to manage your wisdom teeth is ultimately your decision. Though it’s aggravating to have to consider expensive surgery for teeth the body shouldn’t be making anymore, it may be the right dental health option. Having a frank discussion with your dental health team and reviewing all your options is the first step in making the right choice.