Wisdom teeth are deeply entrenched in popular culture, generally as a joke about painful dental procedures and the oft-dubious joys of growing up. As a result of their popularity as a source of anecdotal humor, however, there are a number of misconceptions and misunderstandings about wisdom teeth, what they are, and what they do. That’s a shame–by better understanding what wisdom teeth are, what they do, and what dentists can do about them, we can both ensure that we know what we need to know and can avoid any unnecessary fears or concerns. With that goal in mind, let’s talk about wisdom teeth.
We’ll open with an important question: what are wisdom teeth, exactly? If you think back to being a little kid, you may remember when you lost your baby teeth as your permanent teeth came in to replace them. Wisdom teeth–also occasionally known as “third molars”–are the last teeth to emerge in most people. There are generally four wisdom teeth, one behind each rear molar in the mouth, and they generally come out somewhere between the ages of 17 and 21, although they start growing within the jaw around the age of seven. As to why they’re called “wisdom teeth”, it’s because they emerge as we’re getting a bit more mature and theoretically wiser.
So what do wisdom teeth do, and why do they come in so much later than other permanent teeth? Well, the truth is we don’t know for sure, and that question is the subject of some speculation among scientists and oral health professionals. They’re not really necessary for chewing, eating, or speaking, which raises speculation that they were once intended to replace worn-out molars in ancient humans. Now, with softer diets and better dentistry and teeth cleaning, replacement molars really aren’t necessary, and there are no spaces for wisdom teeth to fill. That’s only one hypothesis as to the purpose of wisdom teeth, however. Again, no one knows for sure why we have them.
Let’s tackle a big question that concerns many people: are wisdom teeth always painful? Well, not always–some people experience wisdom teeth with no discomfort or issues. However, for many folks, there are problems with wisdom teeth. Wisdom teeth may become impacted, which means they refuse to emerge from the bone or gum and must be surgically removed. Some wisdom teeth develop infections or abscesses, and some may push against the back molars and cause pain that way. In general, the solution to wisdom teeth issues is removal.
So what happens when wisdom teeth are removed? The first thing to remember is that this is a routine procedure in dental surgery and generally is completed without complications. Most dentists prefer to remove wisdom teeth when the patient is in their late teens or early 20s. By performing the surgery before the teeth have solidified into the jaw bone, we can reduce pain and potential complications while speeding recovery times. Generally speaking, most patients recover fully within a few days, although if the teeth are impacted it may take longer. Your dentist will give you instructions as to how to care for your mouth during the recovery period. This will generally entail eating soft foods, keeping the site of the removal clean, and protecting the site as it heals.
Wisdom teeth are nothing to be afraid of, but rather something to understand and to be aware of. Should you need your wisdom teeth removed, your dentist will explain what’s going to happen to best fit your individual needs. Getting your wisdom teeth out may be an important step in maintaining your dental health, and it’s generally not as difficult as pop culture would have you believe. So don’t be afraid to ask Dr. Stenvall and your Queen City Dental Arts team about your wisdom teeth if you’re coming up on the time of life in which they may come into play.