Though not everybody gets them, wisdom teeth are the last set of adult molars that come in, in the very back of your mouth. Some wisdom teeth grow in without a problem, but in other cases, they get trapped in the gums or jaw, leading to various oral health problems, and need to be removed.

Why We Have Wisdom Teeth

Not everyone gets wisdom teeth, and we do not really need them. Many medical professionals believe wisdom teeth are vestigal, which means we may have needed them in the past, but we do not need them anymore.

Because our early ancestors ate a diet mainly consisting of tough meat and plants, wisdom teeth may have been necessary to grind up these foods for digestion. But food preparation methods have drastically changed, and our mouths have undergone several evolutionary changes, too. They are smaller than they once were, so there is often not enough room for a third molar.

x-ray showing wisdom teeth coming in


When They Come In

Wisdom teeth usually grow in when we're between 17 and 25; if they are impacted, though, you may not see them when you look in your mouth.

Their name comes from the fact that these teeth emerge much later in life than the other molars, which come in at ages six and 12, and so you are much wiser when they appear.

young woman in bed holding her face in pain


Problems with Wisdom Teeth

If there is not enough space for wisdom teeth to come in correctly or if they come through at the wrong angle, many problems can develop. Wisdom teeth that are not correctly positioned are difficult to floss and trap food, increasing the risk of cavities. If they have partially broken through the gums, bacteria have a place to get into the gumline, which can lead to swelling, pain, and infections.

Wisdom teeth can also damage neighboring teeth or push them out of alignment, and if they get impacted or stuck, can lead to significant jaw damage.

person holding a model of a wisdom tooth coming in crooked


Signs of a Problem

Some [signs that you may have a problem with your wisdom teeth are pain, recurring infection, gum disease, tooth damage, or tooth decay. You may not always recognize that these symptoms are caused by wisdom teeth if they have not broken through the gum line.

young adult man showing dentist his tooth pain


Keeping Your Wisdom Teeth

In some cases, wisdom teeth do not need to be removed. You will have to decide with your dentist after an oral exam and x-rays. If your dentist does not think your wisdom teeth need to be removed immediately, they will continue monitoring to ensure that problems do not develop over time.

woman having her teeth checked by a dentist


Wisdom Teeth Removal

Although there is no evidence of any health benefits to removing wisdom teeth, if they are causing problems or are likely to cause problems in the future, removal is likely the best option.

If wisdom teeth do not break through, it is usually because there is not enough room or another tooth is in the way. If they get stuck or cause pain or damage, removing them is often the only way to get relief or avoid more serious problems.

removed theeth on a table with dental implements


Things to Consider

There are many things to consider when determining whether wisdom teeth removal is the right option. You and your dentist should consider the surgical risks and whether your wisdom teeth are causing you pain or damaging your jaw or neighboring teeth. If your second molars are damaged, sometimes it's possible to extract them and let the healthier wisdom teeth come in and take their place.

You should also consider whether you need or have had other dental work and how your wisdom teeth will affect this. For example, if you had braces to straighten your teeth and correct your bite and your wisdom teeth are at risk of pushing your other teeth out of alignment again, your dentist will likely recommend removing them.

young woman with braces talking to dentist


The Removal Procedure

After you are sedated, the oral surgeon numbs the area around the teeth they are removing. If the teeth are impacted and trapped in the gums or jaw, the surgeon makes incisions to access the teeth to remove them from their sockets. The surgeon then cleans the sockets and stitches them closed. The stitches fall out in a few days.

Most wisdom teeth extractions take about an hour, but complicated cases may take longer.

young woman having dental work done


When to Have Wisdom Teeth Removed

You can have your wisdom teeth out at any age, but the removal is less complicated when you do it in your late teens or early twenties. The teeth have yet to develop fully, so they are easier to remove, and recovery is often easier with less risk of complications.

young woman having a dental checkup


Complications of Wisdom Tooth Removal

Usually, wisdom teeth removal does not significantly affect your overall health, and your gums will heal completely in a few weeks.

Some possible complications include infections, damage to surrounding teeth and bone during surgery, and dry socket, which happens when the protective blood clot does not form over the empty socket, and the bone is exposed to food and bacteria. Treatment usually consists of antiseptic mouthwashes and gels and maintaining excellent oral hygiene.

young woman with sore mouth


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