Most of what people know about wisdom teeth is that by a certain age, they may have to visit their dentist or oral surgeon to have them removed. The reason dentists suggest removal or extraction is because they can become impacted when there is not enough room for them to completely break through the gums. When they are impacted they are blocked from coming in properly by either the adjacent teeth, a small jaw bone, or gum tissue. If this happens, they can eventually cause pain or become infected. Depending on the position of the teeth in the jaws and the anatomy of the tooth, surgery may involve general anesthesia, stitches, a recovery period of a few days, and a soft diet for approximately 1 week.
Wisdom teeth, A.K.A. 3rd molars, were given the name “wisdom” because they come in at a more mature age, usually between the ages of 17 and 21.
Wisdom teeth are a modern “problem.” One reason is due to our modern diet. Our prehistoric ancestors needed their third molars because they ate rougher foods like leaves, roots, nuts and meats. Modern cooking and cooking utensils also helped soften our foods.
Professor Alan Mann from Princeton University says our brain size is another reason why wisdom teeth are a modern “problem.” As humans evolved from our prehistoric days…so did our brain, or more precisely, our brain size. Our brains actually got bigger. That increase in size resulted with broadening skull width which then resulted in the shortening of the dental arcade. There simply is not enough room to house them.
There has been some controversy over the years regarding the removal over wisdom teeth. Some dentists have questioned whether these surgeries are actually necessary. Some articles have suggested that we might be putting people through the risk of invasive tooth removal for no reason. Just to give you an indication of how many teeth are pulled -- in 2011, 10 million wisdom teeth were removed from Americans' mouths.
The UK gave up on routinely removing wisdom teeth in 2000. A research study followed the removal of wisdom teeth over the years after it was decided that removing these teeth to prevent problems in the future was not indicated. They found that although the number of patients having their wisdom teeth removed in the early 2000s declined, there was a surge of patients needing to have their wisdom teeth removed as they were older. It seemed to just postpone removal of wisdom teeth. Unfortunately, as we age, the complications associated with wisdom teeth removal is higher.
The American Association of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeons published a paper in 2016 advising that wisdom teeth associated with disease, or that are at high risk of developing disease, should be removed. In the absence of disease or significant risk of disease, these teeth can be left in, but must be monitored by visits to your dentist and periodic x-rays. This is because wisdom teeth that are left in can develop problems such as cysts, cavities, and damage to adjacent teeth.
So not all wisdom teeth removals are unnecessary.
If you visit your dentist regularly, as the Canadian Dental Association and the American Dental Association suggests, your dentist will most likely keep you informed on the status of your wisdom teeth. He/she may suggest removing the teeth before they become an issue because the earlier you remove them, the easier it is and less potential complications. This is because the older you are the tooth roots are more developed and longer often making removal of these teeth more complicated. Be sure to have your dentist assess your wisdom teeth in you later teen years, typically 17 or 18.