The third molars, commonly referred to as “wisdom teeth,” typically erupt in the mouth of individuals between the ages of 18 and 25. These teeth break through the gums when you mature into young adulthood — hence the term “wisdom” teeth.
Though the name and nature of the teeth are rather straightforward, there are often questions surrounding their usefulness and permanence. For instance, why do some people have them pulled and others don’t? Let’s look at the purpose of wisdom teeth, when you can keep them, and when it’s best to have them removed.
Why do we have wisdom teeth? Do we need them if they don’t show up until young adulthood? Due to changes in diet over the years, our jaws have evolved to a more compact size. Since we have begun refining our carbohydrates, among other things, a full set of molars simply isn’t needed like it used to be.
We’re not crunching on grains all day long. So, with a smaller jaw comes the need for fewer teeth, which is why most people end up having their wisdom teeth removed. Not enough room at the inn for all the pearly whites!
But does everyone need to have them removed?
Keep Them or Lose Them?
Some people can keep their wisdom teeth, and some need to have them removed for oral health reasons. There are typically five criteria for deciding whether or not one should get rid of their wisdom teeth:
1. Jaw Size
Even though we’ve physically changed as a people over time — smaller jaws, walking upright, etc. — not all the evolutionary changes have happened evenly across humanity. Some of us have a larger jawbone, allowing more room for teeth to grow and spread out. When this is the case, the wisdom teeth don’t need to be removed (unless there are other underlying issues – more on this in a bit), and the person should never have any overcrowding issues.
Those with smaller jaws would be the ones who need these teeth taken out. The best way to find out if your jaw can handle a few more molars is to come in and have a dentist give your mouth a look. Within a few minutes, he will be able to tell if you need tooth removal or not.
2. The Size of the Teeth
Sometimes, wisdom teeth come in a bit smaller with less of a root system. These underdeveloped molars cannot chew food as well as they should and may end up breaking and causing infection. When wisdom teeth break through and show to be smaller like this, it’s recommended to have them removed — even if there is enough space in the mouth for them.
3. Cleaning Capability
When looking over your wisdom teeth and determining if removing them is a good idea, one of the most significant factors is the capability — both in the moment and in the long term — that they can be adequately cleaned. By nature, wisdom teeth are a little more challenging to keep clean than others due to their precarious placement in the back of the mouth. If you can’t get floss and the head of a toothbrush between and around the wisdom teeth, plaque will accumulate, eventually leading to cavities and gum disease.
4. More on Cavities
Some people naturally have a higher risk for cavities. Just like cholesterol or high blood pressure can be hereditary, so can elements of your oral health. As noted in number 3, it’s best to pull the wisdom teeth if there is a probability for cavities to be present.
Even if you plan on thoroughly cleaning those back molars, because of their placement — and because you might have the propensity to have cavities — it is best practice to have them pulled. The last thing you want is for bacteria to build and fester in the mouth, as this can lead to all sorts of maladies, even deadly ones.
5. Risk of Gum Disease
The same goes for those of us who suffer from, or are likely to suffer from, gum disease. There are evil little bacteria that love to find hard-to-get-to hiding places inside our mouths to grow and spread gum disease. Since wisdom teeth are prime hiding spots, the risk of gum disease is another reason to consider removing your wisdom teeth.
When to Remove Wisdom Teeth
It’s tempting to wait until they become an issue, but waiting to have your wisdom teeth removed can be a bad idea seeing how any of the five outcomes above can lead to dangerously poor oral health. Don’t let yourself get to that point. If you know or have a good idea that your wisdom teeth will need removal, get it done sooner rather than later.
A quick consultation with Dr. Brown will reveal:
- Where in the growth process you are;
- How much longer until they break through the gums;
- And whether or not it would be best to have them pulled.
When it comes to the timing of removal, think of it like this: The older you get, the more those teeth grow and expand. The teeth’s size and position are affected by the patient’s age.
You also want to consider healing time after the surgery. The younger you are, the faster you will heal! It takes anywhere from six to nine years for teeth to grow, and they like to form from the top down — meaning they develop from the biting surface on down to the root of the tooth.
By removing these teeth when the patient is young, the dentist can use a less intrusive removal method as the teeth are smaller and less rotted into the gums than fully-formed teeth. Less trauma to the jawbone and gums equals faster healing, which is what we are about!
Tips and Advice For Those Keeping Wisdom Teeth
After consulting with a dentist, if you discover you can keep your wisdom teeth, there are still a few things to keep in mind — a few specific problems to look out for.
The most common issue for wisdom-teeth keepers is pericoronitis. This is a condition where the gums surrounding the wisdom teeth become inflamed, causing a “partial eruption.” Essentially, the wisdom tooth is being hampered from growing correctly because of gum swelling. This can even cause the wisdom teeth to twist or tip, which is not good and will end up requiring removal.
When a tooth partially erupts, it also creates openings where plaque, bacteria, and food debris can all build up and create further health issues, not to mention sharp, intense pain. One way to combat this horrible experience is to rinse with salt water and/or over-the-counter anti-inflammatories regularly. These can help reduce the swelling and discomfort for a time, but a visit to the dentist is what can bring permanent relief.
As always, your best option when considering your oral health is to visit us at Adam Brown, DDS. We can assess your jaw size and the area of the mouth where the wisdom teeth grow to let you know your best option!