Teething is not for the faint-hearted. We’ve all seen teething babies and toddlers who are
clearly in pain and most unhappy. It can feel like that for adults too whose wisdom teeth are
making their presence felt.
What are wisdom teeth?
Wisdom teeth are the last molars on each side of your jaw.
In dental terms, they are called your third molars. Wisdom teeth start to form in your jaw around eight years of age. They usually erupt through the gum into the mouth between the ages of 16 and 25 years.
Most people have four wisdom teeth but not everyone has four, or any at all. In earlier times, the eruption of a wisdom tooth was thought to cause tooth crowding. However current information shows the two are not related.
Wisdom Teeth Age
Does a wisdom tooth indicate wisdom? Not necessarily.
Popular opinion has always been that they are called wisdom teeth because they erupt later in life, at an age when a person matures into adulthood and is “wiser” than when their childhood teeth erupted.
However, recent scientific research shows the brain does not reach full maturity until around 25 years of age. Perhaps the eruption of a wisdom tooth does mark a dental transition from childhood into adulthood.
Many patients ask in frustration why do we have wisdom teeth?
That’s a good question. People have speculated and opinions vary, including ideas that early people had larger jaws and the extra teeth fitted in easily or that early people had a plant-based diet and needed extra teeth to grind their food.
Skeletal shapes and sizes have changed over time and now these “extra teeth” can cause dental complications.
Should wisdom teeth be routinely removed?
Most dentists agree that wisdom teeth (third molars) should only be removed if there is a problem or likely to develop a problem in the future. Many people have wisdom teeth, erupted or un-erupted which never cause any dental issues.
Unfortunately, this is not the case with everyone.
Regular dental check ups can monitor the progress and condition of your wisdom teeth. As with any dental condition, early intervention, if warranted, is best and most effective.
If it is necessary to have your wisdom teeth removed, it is easier to have them out when you’re still young. This is because the roots of your teeth are not fully developed yet and the surrounding bone is less dense. Younger people also tend to heal faster after tooth removal than older people.
Wisdom Teeth Questions
How would I know if I have a problem?
The most common indicator of a problem is pain or discomfort, especially at the back of your mouth. You may notice some of these signs or symptoms:
- Redness or swelling of your gums at the back of your mouth
- Tender or bleeding gums in this area
- Pain around your jaw and difficulty opening your mouth
- An unpleasant taste in your mouth or bad breath
However, you may not experience any of these symptoms. Because there is often not much space in your jaw for wisdom teeth to erupt, they can cause other problems that you may not even be aware of.
Often these problems can only be visible by using dental X-rays. Panoramic X-rays, also called OPG X-rays, are a valuable tool to assess your whole jaw, bone structures, nerves, teeth and sinus cavity. They clearly show the position of your teeth, even those that have not yet erupted, and highlight potential problems.
What kinds of problems can be caused?
Impacted & Partially Impacted Wisdom Tooth
When wisdom teeth are too close to the adjacent tooth or blocked by bone, they may not be able to erupt, or may erupt at odd angles or only partly break through the gum. Dentists call these teeth “impacted” or “partially impacted“.
If a wisdom tooth is fully impacted, it won’t be able to erupt normally. This may not be a problem unless it is wedged against the tooth next to it. By its pressure, the wisdom tooth may cause irreversible damage to the adjacent tooth’s roots or crown. This may mean that both the wisdom tooth and the adjacent tooth will need to be removed.
Partially impacted wisdom teeth can also damage adjacent teeth in this way. The tightness or angle of the eruption may make it impossible to clean around the teeth. Some partially impacted wisdom teeth can erupt through the side of the gum and cause erosion and discomfort in the cheek.
Sometimes, because wisdom teeth only partially erupt, a flap of gum remains over part of the biting surface of the tooth. This can be very painful when eating or chewing because of the pressure on the gum. The skin flap can also trap bits of food and bacteria underneath. If this happens, it may cause an infection to develop called pericoronitis. Having an unresolved source of infection in your body is not beneficial to your health. If pericoronitis occurs, it is a major reason that dentists recommend removal of wisdom teeth.
Occasionally, some people develop cysts around the roots of their wisdom teeth which can cause permanent damage to bone, teeth and nerves.
Because wisdom teeth are so far back in the mouth, they can be a problem to clean properly and are often prone to decay, which results in fillings. Unfortunately, once a tooth has been filled, the filling will need replacing as it wears, each time needing a slightly larger filling. The ongoing process and costs of fillings may make tooth removal a more practical alternative.
Is removal of wisdom teeth the only option?
If you are experiencing ongoing pain, swelling or complications like infections, removal of your wisdom teeth is the most straightforward solution to the situation.
Taking long term antibiotics and not resolving the cause of infection is not ideal. Leaving infections untreated can cause further damage to your oral and general health.
If a dental X-ray has shown that your wisdom teeth are directly affecting other teeth, it is in your best interests to have them removed so you do not lose other teeth as a result.
How should I find out if my wisdom teeth are a problem?
Simply visit a dentist.
A panoramic X-ray in your mid teens will assist with early detection of potential problems before the tooth roots are fully developed. Even if you’re past your teens, an X-ray can provide vital information about the condition and position of your wisdom teeth.
Dentists are experienced in assessing your mouth and teeth for what is normal and what is not. They can take X-rays to check out what is visible and what is not. They can give you professional advice and information about maintaining your oral health so that you can make an informed decision about any action that would be to your advantage.
And that’s real wisdom!