Wisdom Teeth, also known as our “Third Molars,” are the last teeth to develop in our mouths and usually grow between the ages of 17-25. Some individuals will never grow wisdom teeth; for some, they will grow in with plenty of room, causing no problems. For others, however, wisdom teeth will grow painfully, pathologically, or lead to other medical problems such as infection. In these cases, having them surgically removed is the only solution necessary for relief.
Wisdom teeth are classified as vestigial structures by evolutionary biologists. Vestigial structures are bodily features that formerly had a function but are no longer necessary as a result of evolution.
While no longer physiologically important, wisdom teeth may become impacted (stuck in the gums or bone) or compressed during growth, leading to many problems. The American Association of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeons reports that wisdom teeth need to be removed in more than 85% of cases, and with such widespread problems, it raises the question, “Why are wisdom teeth even there?”
WHAT IS THE PURPOSE OF WISDOM TEETH?
Human biologists and other scientists have found evidence to support the idea that modern humans do not use their third molars the same way as their ancestors did. Early humans had significantly larger jaws, making more space for wisdom teeth to grow. Wisdom teeth then served the purpose of tearing, crushing, and chewing tougher food like nuts, roots, meats, and leaves and were necessary for food breakdown and digestion of common paleolithic foods.
HISTORY OF WISDOM TEETH
Archaeologists and anthropologists agree that our ancestors’ wisdom teeth served a vital function to chew better and process tough foods that were staples in the hunter-gatherer civilization and diet. As society progressed, however, so did the human diet and, subsequently the physiological structures and processes of the human body.
As humans turned towards methods of cooking and softening food, we evolved smaller mouths and jaws as the significance of wisdom teeth diminished.
In modern civilization and human evolution, wisdom teeth have largely become functionally obsolete. This is primarily due to the fact that we have softer food, silverware, and methods to almost entirely break down and soften our food before it even hits our mouths.
For the rare group of people with enough room to grow healthy, functional wisdom teeth, there are certainly benefits from having an additional pair of molars to chew food. However, in most cases, unfortunately, wisdom teeth cause more issues than they resolve.
WHEN DO PEOPLE GET THEIR WISDOM TEETH?
At birth, a human already has all of their permanent teeth in place, located in the jaws. After baby teeth grow and fall out, 32 adult teeth come in; the first molars typically erupt at age 6, and the second set around age 12. Approximately 65% of the population will grow their third and final set of molars, their wisdom teeth, between the ages of 17-25.
For those that don’t “grow” their wisdom teeth, you might be interested to know that in most cases, the teeth are still there but simply never emerge through the gums. Often this is harmless, but in the case of any pathology, the hidden wisdom teeth can be identified via X-ray.
WHY AND WHEN ARE WISDOM TEETH REMOVED?
The emergence of 1-4 of your wisdom teeth is not always a concern. For some, wisdom teeth can grow with plenty of room and cause no problems aside from routine teething soreness. But If you’re in the unlucky majority who grow wisdom teeth that cause unresolved pain, crowd your other teeth, or cause impaction or infection, it is likely that at least one tooth will have to be surgically removed. In these cases, your third molars might have caused shifting of other teeth, as well as oral infection and cavities, since they frequently can’t find enough room in the mouth to grow at the right angle, leading to a range of issues. Wisdom teeth removal may be suggested by your dentist if you:
- Have discomfort in the back of your mouth due to a toothache.
- Have a spreading of gum disease, especially in the areas surrounding your wisdom teeth.
- Have cavities in a partially erupted wisdom tooth.
- Have retained particles of food and other material around your wisdom teeth that are difficult to remove
- Have one or more of your wisdom teeth that become surrounded by a cyst
- Have tooth or bone damage in the vicinity.
Even if you don’t experience any discomfort, your dentist may still advise you to have your wisdom teeth removed due to precaution against infection and tooth decay, so it’s best to see your dentist when your wisdom teeth start growing.
WISDOM TOOTH EXTRACTION: WHAT TO EXPECT
If your dentist recommends tooth extraction, the good news is there’s nothing to worry about. Extraction is considered minor surgery and has a very low risk of complications. A supportive and professional dental practice will do the most to make sure you are as comfortable as possible, and your dentist will often administer a sedative to ensure that you feel calm and your muscles are relaxed.
After your sedation, your surgeon will use a local anesthetic to numb your teeth and gums before starting the procedure. Incisions are made to expose the wisdom teeth if impacted so that your surgeon may remove them. When the wisdom teeth have been located, your dental surgeon will gently loosen and pull the tooth away from its socket, clean and sanitize the region, and suture the opening. Stitches often dissolve on their own after a few days.
WISDOM TEETH POST-OP EXPECTATIONS
After wisdom teeth removal surgery, healing is relatively straightforward and revolves around keeping any incisions clean and getting good rest. Your dentist often recommends you avoid strenuous activity and exercise until your body fully recovers.
You should be able to consume soft foods early on and consider soothing the surgery sites with cold foods, like ice cream. Avoid meals that are too crunchy, hot, spicy, or anything that might irritate your mouth. Lastly, try to avoid straws, as suction has the potential to loosen healed blood clots, which are vital to the recovery process.
Post-surgery pain and discomfort often peak within 1-3 days following surgery and then gradually subside. Other possible side effects include bruising, swelling, and inflammation at the extraction sites, all of which are to be expected.
Most discomfort should subside between days three and seven, and you’ll be able to consume more solid things after a week. Your dentist will likely recommend avoiding particular foods for a while. After a week, you may start lightly brushing the surgical areas to eliminate food and other debris, and then continue brushing your other teeth as usual.
After approximately two weeks, the area around the extraction will likely be a little sensitive but largely healed and feel almost normal. At this point most normal eating and dental hygiene habits can resume. Remember to keep your dentist informed of any changes.
BE WISE ABOUT WISDOM TEETH
Wisdom teeth have an interesting history that tells the story of the natural evolution of human civilization and diet. In modern dental development, wisdom teeth can be harmless or problematic depending on your luck. Should you need to undergo wisdom teeth extraction, your dentist will talk you through the process and ensure you have nothing to worry about. Wisdom teeth removal is a minor oral surgery that is usually minimally invasive, but necessary in the case of pain, crowding, impaction or infection.
Sometimes a need for wisdom teeth extraction is painfully obvious (no pun intended), but sometimes it’s not always clear whether wisdom teeth extraction is necessary or not. Stay ahead of the game by chatting to your dentist about wisdom teeth. Experts like Brodie Bowman Orthodontics can advise you wisdom teeth removal, perform X-rays, and extractions and stay ahead of the game by taking a look at your mouth and seeing if your wisdom teeth might be emerging soon.