Wisdom teeth, or third molars, are remnants from our hunter-gatherer ancestors who needed this extra set of molars to grind through their primitive diet of raw meat and roots. Thankfully our diets and meal preparation practices have evolved, rendering these teeth unnecessary.
Our brain size has also increased and our jaw size has decreased since our caveman days. The result? Many of us simply don’t have room in our mouths for these late-blooming teeth. Unfortunately, our bodies haven’t gotten the message and this third set of molars continues to emerge, typically between the ages of 17 and 23. If left unchecked, they can wreak havoc on our modern-day mouths.
If wisdom teeth begin to emerge at an angle, they can become partially trapped under the gum tissue leading to swelling, pain, discomfort and even infection. If these teeth become impacted, they can also develop tumors or cysts, which could potentially create more severe problems. Even when wisdom teeth are able to fully erupt on their own, they can cause a shift in other adult teeth, resulting in overcrowding. They are also more prone to cavities because they are set so far back in the mouth, making it difficult to clean them effectively.
Because the risks associated with wisdom teeth often outweigh their benefits, dentists typically advise patients to have their wisdom teeth removed. The timing and manner in which wisdom teeth are removed varies, but is often recommended during the teenage years, when the body is better able to heal, minimizing recovery time and reducing potential complications.
“It much easier to remove the wisdom teeth when the roots are short,” explains Nick Dennis, practice manager with Union Pediatric Dentistry. “When the roots get longer, they can get close to a nerve that runs through the lower jaw called the inferior alveolar nerve, increasing the chance of nerve damage.”
Dennis also notes that teenagers tend to heal faster than adults, helping to speed recovery time and avoid potential complications.
When determining the timing of wisdom teeth removal, the patient’s age, position of the teeth and root formation are all factors. “Periodically, we take an X-ray called a panoramic X-ray, which shows us the growth and development of the third molars,” Dennis says. “When we begin to see root development, we evaluate the eruption pattern and space in the mouth to determine if there will be enough room for eruption. Even if there is enough room for eruption, we look at overall hygiene and gingival health to see if the patient will be able to maintain the wisdom teeth.”
As with all medical procedures, wisdom teeth removal should be decided on a case-by-case basis. “Some patients that have adequate space for full eruption of wisdom teeth, along with low cavity risk and good oral hygiene, can keep their wisdom teeth,” Dennis says.
Taking your child in for regular dental checkups will help determine if and when wisdom teeth removal is right for your child. If your teen is experiencing jaw pain or develops swelling in his mouth in between visits, be sure to consult your dental professional.