As your child reaches his or her late teens or early 20’s, wisdom teeth may appear. In some individuals, all four erupt, while in others, anywhere from one to three teeth may emerge. The appearance of wisdom teeth is generally a painless experience but, for others, the eruption of wisdom teeth brings major discomfort and increases the risk of dental disease.
The Purpose of Wisdom Teeth
Our ancestors’ diets were quite different than ours. They ate rough foods, such as leaves, nuts, seeds and meat, on a regular basis. Consequently, they needed strong jaws and teeth to manage those foods. As a result, their jaws were larger, making plenty of room for an entire set of 32 teeth. With the advent of softer foods, as well as utensils such as forks and knives, evolution has given us smaller jaws and no need for these vestigial teeth.
The Source of The Name, “Wisdom” Teeth
Wisdom teeth are technically called “third molars.” Because they generally erupt between the ages of 17 and 25 years of age, when an individual is supposedly becoming wise in the ways of the world, they were dubbed “wisdom” teeth!
Wisdom Teeth Problems
Some people go their entire lives completely unaware of their third molars. They have no pain, no swelling, and no problems with food becoming trapped in their wisdom teeth. Others, however, aren’t so lucky. Here are some problems created by wisdom tooth eruption:
- Partially erupted teeth can trap food, leading to decay and/or infection.
- Crowding of permanent teeth can occur whether or not wisdom teeth erupt to the surface of the gum line.
- Impacted wisdom teeth can form cysts that increase the risks for bone destruction.
What is an Impacted Wisdom Tooth?
An impacted tooth is one that fails to fully erupt, usually due to dental crowding—there’s simply not enough room in the patient’s jaw for this extra tooth to emerge. It may exist at an odd angle or become stuck below the gum. Although wisdom teeth begin to develop when your child is in elementary school, those that do not fully erupt by the late teens to early 20’s are considered impacted. Impacted wisdom teeth cause pain, and can lead to gum disease and infection.
When Wisdom Teeth Should be Removed
According to the American Association of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeons, approximately 85% of wisdom teeth are removed due to discomfort or problems such as those listed above. For the lucky 15% who have completely erupted third molars that are decay-free and easily cleaned, extraction can be avoided unless there is a concern that their presence may disturb the patient’s “bite,” by throwing off the alignment of the second molars or due to concerns that the patient cannot adequately brush and floss these teeth.
How Wisdom Teeth Are Removed
The removal procedure differs depending upon whether the molars are above the surface of the gums or impacted. Those above the gum generally require simple extraction under local anesthesia plus sedation or general anesthesia, while those patients with impacted wisdom teeth may require general anesthesia to provide easy access to incise the gum tissue in order to remove the tooth.
If your teen or young adult son or daughter complains of jaw or dental pain, please make an appointment to see me in my Manhattan pediatric dental office. If the problem is due to wisdom teeth, we refer our patients to Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeons Drs. Swain, Zargari, and Lustman, a wonderful group next door to our Manhattan pediatric dental office.