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Wisdom Teeth | What You Need to Know

If you were waiting for some extra brainpower to kick in with the arrival of your wisdom teeth, don’t hold your breath. Wisdom teeth are intelligent only in name, and are actually correlated with an advance in age, not an increase in smarts.

Most people develop three sets of permanent molars throughout youth and early adulthood. The molars appear in each of the four quadrants of the mouth (right, left, top, and bottom).

The first set grows in, or erupts, around age six, and the second around age twelve. The third and final set of molars generally appears during the late teens or early twenties. Because this age has traditionally been considered one of increased knowledge, third molars are fondly (if inaccurately) referred to as “wisdom teeth.”

While in many mouths, wisdom teeth arrive in perfect formation – aligned properly with respect to the jaw and the second molars – frequently they are instead impacted, which means they either do not fully come in, or they come in misaligned.

Impacted wisdom teeth can cause a number of problems, the most common being:

• Infection: When a wisdom tooth only partially erupts, it leaves an opening that bacteria can enter, leading to infection.
• Tooth damage: If a wisdom tooth erupts at an odd angle, it can cause damage to nearby teeth. Some wisdom teeth erupt at angles toward or away from second molars, or toward the inside or the outside of the mouth.
• Cyst formation: In some cases, a cyst, or fluid-filled sac, forms, and can cause pain as well as damage to the jawbone and tooth roots.
• Tooth decay and gum disease: Due to impaction, as well as location in the rear of the mouth, wisdom teeth can be difficult to brush and floss. Uncared-for teeth are more likely to decay, which can lead to gum disease.

Symptoms of impacted molars include pain, jaw stiffness, swelling of the face, swelling of the gums, and oral infection. If you experience any of these symptoms, give us a call immediately. We can assess the situation and recommend a specialist if necessary.

In many cases, an impacted wisdom tooth must be removed. And depending on the information gleaned from x-rays of your mouth, we may recommend that wisdom teeth be extracted before they even begin to erupt. An early removal can avoid painful problems and complicated extractions in the future. Extraction is a simpler procedure at an earlier age, because the tooth roots are smaller and the jawbone is less dense. The American Association of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeons estimates that about 85% of third molars will eventually need to be removed.

You may wonder why we develop third molars, if they are so commonly problematic. Anthropologists believe that the course of human evolution has involved a shrinking of the lower jaw, which leaves less room for these formerly useful teeth. As the last teeth to arrive, third molars are often faced with a game of musical chairs. In many cases there is no chair (space on the jaw) for these teeth to sit upon.
A complimentary theory finds that as the human diet has progressed from an abundance of meat, uncooked greens, nuts, and other foraged food to a “softer” diet, our third set of molars has been rendered unnecessary. A molar that has found a way to avoid working – now that sounds like one smart tooth!