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Wisdom Teeth: Should They Stay or Should They Go?

Wisdom Teeth: Should They Stay or Should They Go?

If you’re like most people, you probably don’t remember much about your permanent teeth coming in when you were in grade school other than the excitement of losing a baby tooth and planning how you would spend your Tooth Fairy money.  However, you may very well remember your wisdom teeth coming in and their subsequent removal. So what’s the deal with wisdom teeth and why are they so often extracted before they’ve even erupted through the gums? Read on for all the info on your last set of molars.

What’s the Purpose of Wisdom Teeth?

Somewhere between the ages of 17 and 21, your wisdom teeth probably made an appearance of some sort or another. These teeth are your final set of molars and are called wisdom teeth since you’re presumably “wiser” than when all your other permanent teeth came in.

If your wisdom teeth come in correctly, they can help you chew just like your other molars. Wisdom teeth are flat and are intended to grind food down.  Including your wisdom teeth, you have three sets of molars on the top and bottom, and on both sides of your mouth.

Historically, wisdom teeth were necessary for chewing roots, leaves, meat and nuts. Over time, as our diets have changed, wisdom teeth have become less essential. In fact, some anthropologists believe humans have evolved past needing wisdom teeth at all.

Why Do So Many People Get Their Wisdom Teeth Removed?

The answer to this question is actually related to the evolutionary progress mentioned above. Over time, the human jaw has gotten smaller as our diet, and therefore, our dental needs, have changed. This means that there isn’t always enough room for wisdom teeth to come in correctly and without causing all sorts of problems.

In addition, most people’s jaws are finished growing by the time they’re 18 years old. However, wisdom teeth tend not to make an appearance until about age 19.  So, in most cases, there’s just not enough room for those pesky wisdom teeth.

Problems Caused by Wisdom Teeth

While some people’s wisdom teeth will erupt through their gums just as all of their other teeth have done, sometimes wisdom teeth are impacted, or hidden beneath the gums. Both scenarios can cause some serious problems. For this reason, dentists strongly recommend that all teenagers be evaluated for wisdom teeth removal surgery. Even if the wisdom teeth have not yet erupted, x-rays give dentists a very good clue as to whether they should stay or go. In fact, people who get their wisdom teeth removed at a younger age tend to heal more quickly from the surgery itself, as the roots and bone are not fully formed.

Here are just a few of the problems that can be caused by wisdom teeth, whether they are visible or impacted:

  • If wisdom teeth don’t come through the gums in the right position, they can allow food and bacteria to be trapped. This can lead to decay and the potential for cavities and other oral health problems.
  • Wisdom teeth that only partially come through the gums can give bacteria a place to enter the gums and create a breeding ground for infection.  This type of infection can lead to pain, swelling and stiffness in your jaw.
  • If there isn’t enough room in your jaw for your wisdom teeth, they can crowd or damage the neighboring teeth.
  • Impacted wisdom teeth can form a cyst on or near the impacted tooth. This can damage the roots of nearby teeth, or even destroy the bone that supports your teeth. 
  • If your wisdom teeth are erupting through your gums, it’s normal to feel a bit of discomfort; however, if you feel pain, contact your dentist right away.

If you are showing any of the above signs, it is very likely that your dentist will recommend that your wisdom teeth be surgically removed. 

Even if They Stay, Keep an Eye on Those Wisdom Teeth

If your wisdom teeth are coming in nicely, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re out of the woods and won’t need to have them removed eventually. You and your dentist should continue to monitor your wisdom teeth for decay or any of the above mentioned issues. Be sure to floss around your wisdom teeth and visit your dentist regularly, as wisdom teeth tend to become more problematic over time.