Real insight on wisdom teeth
Making sense of wisdom teeth
Once wisdom teeth start to come in, your first line of inquiry might be, what do you do about them? And how do you manage the discomfort? Once you stop to think further, you might wonder why we have wisdom teeth in the first place. If so many people need them removed, why do we grow them? And why do they come in so late?
Anthropologists say that wisdom teeth, or “third molars,” were necessary when homo sapiens diet included more meat, nuts, and fibrous greens. Molars are the teeth that grind and pulverize the food you eat, but over time our diets have changed, and so have our mouths. And, according to the same anthropological theory, as our mouths have evolved to be smaller our wisdom teeth have begun to crowd our mouths. This is the origin of why we remove wisdom teeth.
You probably had your first set of adult molars erupt when you were about six years old. The second set of molars might have erupted when you were 12. Your third molars come in between ages 17 and 25 on average, but outliers are not uncommon.
Although our predecessors typically sprouted four wisdom teeth—two on top and two on bottom—it’s not uncommon that people today grow one, two or three. And even if you grow all four, perhaps you only need two removed. There have even been cases of people growing more than four, as documented by the Journal of the Canadian Dental Association.0
When wisdom teeth only partially erupt, they become tight food traps that can ultimately lead to infection. Partial eruption means that the tooth doesn’t sprout in-line with the rest of your teeth—rather, it tilts forward and partially pushes on the teeth in front of it.
Many patients also have fully impacted teeth, where there is no room for them to come in, so they force themselves forward underneath your gums. This is very painful, and these wisdom teeth can be harder to remove. Impacted wisdom teeth typically displace your whole alignment if they aren’t removed.
Some people sprout all four wisdom teeth no problem, and their jaws accommodate them comfortably. Many of these patients choose not to have their wisdom teeth removed—according to estimates of the American Association of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeons, 15% of wisdom teeth are not removed. Even in these cases, however, these teeth are so far back in the mouth that they’re harder to floss and keep clean. Often, they become the first to develop decay if oral hygiene isn’t upkept.
Removing your wisdom teeth
For those whose wisdom teeth aren’t causing immediate problems, it can be difficult to think about having oral surgery that doesn’t feel urgently necessary. However, over the age of 35 patients have a much higher risk of complications, according to studies of the American Dental Association. Wisdom teeth are best removed when the roots are only partially formed, usually in your late teens.
The older you get, the longer healing time will be, too. The American Dental Association recommends starting with an evaluation, with or without existing signs of eruption, between ages 16 and 19. An early evaluation will give you a heads-up if your wisdom teeth are further along than you realize, but impacted.
Eruption of wisdom teeth is not continuous, which means there will be bursts of pain and discomfort for a few days, and then nothing. This is good news for pain management, but can also remove the sense of “urgency” when patients continually forget about it. Get your wisdom teeth evaluated at the first sign of eruption, to avoid infection, displacement, and even gum disease and oral cysts. And even if you haven’t seen initial signs, getting an evaluation early helps to stay ahead of any potential complications.