5 Things to Know About Wisdom Teeth
Every kid is thrilled when they lose that first baby tooth and watch a new adult tooth grow into its place. (A surprise from the tooth fairy no doubt adds to the excitement.) Fast forward a decade or so, and those same kids will experience the less rewarding emergence (or “eruption”) of their final adult teeth, called the third molars—more commonly referred to as wisdom teeth. Even back in the 17th century, these last molars were called “teeth of wisdom,” since they appear when we reach adulthood, between the ages of 17 and 25.
Get the facts on wisdom teeth, including why they can be problematic and how to manage them early so you can (wisely) avoid problems down the line.
Typically, four wisdom teeth emerge from your gums: two on top and two on the bottom. These teeth are considered vestigial—no longer needed or useful—because humans today eat a much different diet than that of our earliest ancestors. Early humans subsisted on raw plants and animals; this type of diet required a lot of chewing power. By the time their wisdom teeth came in, their other molars had worn down, making way for these new ones. But once we began cooking our food, these super-chewers weren’t needed, and since softer cooked food didn’t wear down our teeth as much, there was no longer room for wisdom teeth to fit.
Wisdom teeth grow differently for everyone. The majority of people today benefit from having their wisdom teeth removed. In most cases, wisdom teeth can become impacted, or trapped, in the gums because there’s no room for them to emerge. These trapped wisdom teeth can cause pain, gum disease, tooth decay, and infections. Sometimes, wisdom teeth only partially erupt from the gums, creating open areas that are difficult to see and clean—ideal conditions for bacteria to collect and cause problems.
There are cases in which people grow wisdom teeth without issues, and sometimes, people don’t experience any symptoms even if their teeth are impacted. Your dentist may not recommend removing wisdom teeth if this is the case. However, if you don’t end up getting your wisdom teeth removed, it’s important to monitor them over time to avoid potential problems later on. Make sure you’re flossing around your wisdom teeth and seeing your dentist twice a year.
Some dentists believe wisdom teeth should be removed before their roots are even fully formed; others advise patients to wait until the wisdom teeth have started to grow, to see if they become impacted. Regardless, make an appointment right away to have your wisdom teeth checked if you experience any of these symptoms:
Pain in your back molars
Repeated infections in your molars
Development of fluid-filled sacs called cysts
Damage to the teeth near your wisdom teeth
Extensive tooth decay
Red, swollen, tender or bleeding gums
Jaw pain or swelling
Wisdom teeth extractions are very common; they make up 80% of tooth extractions performed by oral surgeons. Before the procedure, you’ll receive some form of anesthesia, whether it’s local anesthesia to numb only your mouth, sedation anesthesia to help you relax and numb the pain, or general anesthesia to make you fully unconscious for the procedure.
To extract the wisdom teeth, the surgeon will make an incision in your gums and remove the teeth. Then he or she will close the wound with stitches and pack the area with gauze.
After the procedure, once the anesthesia wears off, you’ll probably experience some pain and bleeding. Your oral surgeon will provide you with clear instructions for pain management and wound care. You can try applying cold compresses to your cheeks and taking appropriate doses of medication to find relief from the pain. And you’ll need to remove and replace the gauze as needed. Limit eating, drinking and talking for the first couple hours after surgery, and focus on resting for the remainder of the day. The plus side? Use this time as an excuse to indulge in a large milkshake or cup of chocolate pudding, since you’ll need to stick to soft foods for a few days post-surgery.
After 2 to 3 days, you should be back to your normal self. However, it’s possible to experience complications during recovery. The most common problem is called a dry socket, when the blood clot in the newly empty tooth socket disappears and exposes your bone to the air. Dry sockets are very painful, and can be vulnerable to infection from bacteria or trapped food, but a trip to your oral surgeon can help alleviate the pain. He or she will gently clean the socket to remove any food debris, and then insert a piece of gauze that’s been coated in pain-relieving “paste” for immediate relief. You may also receive a prescription for pain medications. Rarely, wisdom teeth removal can result in damage to your nearby teeth, nerves, jawbone or sinuses. If you experience any lasting or worsening pain or numbness, be sure to alert your doctor right away.