The Wisdom Behind Wisdom Teeth
By: Richard Hermanto, Contributing Writer
Edited by: Fatou Yeli Kourouma, Editor; Elias Azizi, Editor in Chief
Getting your wisdom teeth removed can be a daunting and frightful experience, especially for teenagers and young adults who may not be as knowledgeable to the nature behind the condition and procedure. It can be a process filled with questions as to whether or not the removal is necessary or what plan of action is needed to ensure the best possible outcome with one’s wisdom teeth care.
History and Context of Wisdom Teeth
Known anatomically as the third molars, the four wisdom teeth are located in the back of the mouth on each side of the upper and lower jaws. They are the last and most posterior teeth in the mouth and are the final sets of teeth to emerge following the incisors, canines, premolars, and molars. They often appear in a person’s mouth between the ages of 17 and 21, which is what coins their name of “wisdom teeth” as people are deemed to be “wiser” when they begin to come in.
The wisdom teeth were originally essential pieces of the early human diet, used to chew food items such as roots, nuts, leaves, and meat. However, with the advent of cooking food and utilizing eating utensils to soften and crush food for easier consumption, wisdom teeth have become obsolete. According to Healthline, this superfluous nature of wisdom teeth has even led anthropologists to speculate that “humans have evolved beyond needing wisdom teeth, so some people may never get any” and that it “wouldn't be surprising to researchers if someday nobody had wisdom teeth anymore.” In spite of this, wisdom teeth still arise in teenagers and adults, as a 2013 study revealed that at least 53% of people still had at least one wisdom tooth emerge (Jung & Cho, 2013).
Potential Complications with Wisdom Teeth
When the emergence of an individual’s wisdom teeth is hindered by a lack of space within the mouth, it can cause symptoms such as gum pain, swelling in the face or gums, or jaw stiffness to occur. There can also be complications with wisdom teeth that arise in an abnormal position as they can become crooked or crowded, forming space for cavity-creating bacteria to grow. They can also become “impacted”, signifying that they are trapped beneath the gums or within the jaw, which can create further potential issues concerning bacterial infection and entrance into the gums. Additionally, an impacted wisdom tooth may cause damage to another nearby tooth and possibly damage its roots or bone support structure through the creation of a cyst on or around the neighboring tooth. Other possible issues with the surfacing of wisdom teeth can include increased tooth decay and jaw pain.
Why Are Wisdom Teeth Removed?
Wisdom teeth are often removed due to the simple fact that there is not enough space in humans’ mouths anymore as evolutionary progress has caused jaws to get progressively smaller over time. This change in jaw structure can also be attributed to the changes in the dietary and dental needs of humans since earlier ages. Along with this, jaws tend to stop growing when an individual is around 18 years old and wisdom teeth, on average, emerge when a person is 19.5 years old leaving no leeway for the jaw to further grow to accommodate the onset of the wisdom teeth.
According to the American Dental Association, removal of wisdom teeth is necessary if any of the following symptoms occur: crooked teeth, crowded teeth, wisdom teeth growing in sideways, increased tooth decay, jaw pain, and cysts or tumors under the gums. Wisdom teeth are usually favored to be removed at earlier ages (in the late teens or early 20s) as they have not had ample time to solidify their roots within the jaw bone and would therefore hold less risk to remove.
However, not everyone may need to undergo wisdom teeth removal surgery. The way wisdom teeth emerge varies with each individual, and some teenagers and young adults may not even need to undergo the operation. Due to the fact that the necessity of the procedure arises when the teeth emerge through the gums into an improper position or an area with little space, it may not be necessary for those who do not have these occur.
Outlook and Treatment of Wisdom Teeth Removal Surgery
Wisdom teeth extraction is an outpatient procedure, allowing the patient to return home the same day as the surgery. The process normally involves the use of sedation or anesthesia to numb the mouth or depress consciousness temporarily. The actual procedure itself includes the creation of an incision within the gums to remove any bone that is blocking access to the tooth's root before extracting it. Once the removal is completed, the oral surgeon will close the wound and pack the empty space around with gauze. After-effects of the procedure consist of bleeding and pain, along with the swelling of the extraction site that can last for multiple days. However, with proper treatment and management of post-operative aftercare such as icing and avoiding vigorous contact with the affected area, many people make full recoveries within three to four days.
It is important that people, especially teenagers, be evaluated and monitored for wisdom teeth removal surgery to prevent any future dental problems that could arise as wisdom teeth can develop to become problematic over time. Since every case of wisdom teeth emergence is different for each person, it is best to consult with a dental professional regarding future steps of action and how the development of wisdom teeth may affect one’s life as they progress from adolescence into adulthood.