May 5, 2018

Why Do We Have Wisdom Teeth?

Have you ever wondered why we have a set of teeth often nicknamed wisdom teeth and why many people have them removed? Third molars, also known as wisdom teeth, are the last teeth to develop and erupt into our mouths and do so at the very back of our upper and lower jaws. They typically erupt between the ages of 18-25, which is why they are nicknamed “Wisdom Teeth” as they erupt at a time when we are thought to become more wise and mature. Although they have a catchy nickname wisdom teeth often cause problems that require them to be removed. Most of these problems occur because of inadequate space in our mouths to accommodate them. These problems include pain, infection, periodontal disease (bone loss from chronic infection), poor eruption patterns, and the formation of different types of cysts and tumors. Unfortunately, some people don’t know they have wisdom teeth until they cause one or more of these problems because wisdom teeth often grow below the surface of the gums and remain undetectable without an x-ray evaluation. If they are stuck under the gums they are called impacted wisdom teeth. These impacted wisdom teeth can cause problems including the growth of cysts or tumors or growing at an angle into the adjacent healthy molars. Growing into the adjacent teeth can cause crowding and misalignment of your otherwise healthy teeth. It can also be very difficult to clean them properly which can lead to tooth decay, gum disease, bone loss and infection which can be dangerous. Some wisdom teeth can erupt properly and if well cared for can function just like other teeth. Unfortunately though, most people who choose to keep their wisdom teeth will likely lose one or more of them over the course of their lifetime due the problems discussed.

Many people ask, “Why do we have wisdom teeth at all?”. Multiple theories exist but many believe they developed out of the need to help our ancestors with their tough diets, which consisted of more rough and hard foods compared to our current diets. Those tough foods caused more wear and tear, which made our ancestors more prone to loosing teeth at earlier ages. Fortunately, wisdom teeth came at a later age (6-15 years later) where they likely had more room to erupt and function properly because of the increased space from the loss of other teeth. Unfortunately, in many cases wisdom teeth now often cause more harm than good.

The next common question we are often asked is “At what age should wisdom teeth be removed?”. This procedure can be performed on patients of all ages but typically not earlier that 10-12 years old. It can also be performed on adults but is generally best to have them removed during the early teenage years from 14-20 years old depending on the development of the patient and the wisdom teeth. By pro-actively removing wisdom teeth during this period we can prevent them from disrupting the normal growth and alignment of healthy teeth. Another benefit is that at this younger age wisdom teeth aren’t fully formed and the jawbone is more forgiving which decreases the risk of surgery and makes the recovery period much more comfortable. The removal of wisdom teeth can be performed under local anesthesia but is most often done under sedation to keep patients as comfortable as possible. If you’re curious about whether you should have your wisdom teeth removed contact the Oral and Facial Surgery Institute where board-certified Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeons Dr. Jamison Metcalf and Dr. Shawn Davis perform these procedures frequently and safely.

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