As children, we develop different types of teeth at different stages of life. First to erupt are the front-most teeth: the central and lateral incisors. These usually come out during a child’s first year of life. Next to erupt are the canine teeth, or cuspids. Lastly, the first and second molars come out when we’re about three years old. As we age, these teeth fall out to make way for our adult teeth. Teeth that have been lost in the process of aging are replaced with new ones. Last to develop are what dentists refer to as the “third molars” or wisdom teeth. These molars are the last teeth in the back of our mouths, and they can often cause dental problems by growing in crooked or sideways, causing overcrowding in the mouth. But if they cause so many issues, what are their purpose and what should you keep an eye out for as they develop? Let’s get smart about wisdom teeth!

Purpose of Wisdom Teeth

Each of our teeth serve a purpose. The front teeth are used to tear our food, and the molars are used to chew and break down our food. However, the wisdom teeth do not have any purpose in the modern day. They helped our ancestors break down the foods that used to make up their diets, such as nuts, sticks, and reed plants. Because of the changes in our diets, we no longer need those teeth in the way we used to. This results in four extra teeth vying for space in a mouth that only needs to fit 28 teeth. This results in shifting of the teeth, potential nerve damage, and the possibility for infections.

Though they can cause oral problems in some cases, not all patients need to have their wisdom teeth removed. In fact, 10% of patients have wisdom teeth that grow in straight with no problems. Those 90%, however, will need a procedure done to remove the impacted teeth. This procedure can usually be done in your dentist’s office, unless you have severely impacted teeth. During this procedure, you may receive local, sedation, or general anesthesia to numb the affected area. Once you are numb, the doctor will make an incision in the gums to expose the impacted tooth, remove the tooth and associated bone, root, and any debris. The doctor then stitches the area closed and packs it with gauze to heal. Unless you received a higher dose of anesthesia, you recover quickly in the office. 

Signs it’s Time to Remove the Wisdom Teeth

Because wisdom teeth are known to cause problems, there are some symptoms to look out for as your wisdom teeth grow out.

  • Pain: When your wisdom teeth are coming in, pain at the back of the mouth may increase as the space in the mouth decreases, and your teeth become more crowded. There might also be some nerves being compressed, also causing pain.
  • Swelling/Tenderness: As the wisdom teeth grow in, swelling around the site can occur if the molars are growing in misaligned. Also, when wisdom teeth break the skin, they run the risk of bringing infection into the area. Oral infections can cause larger issues if not properly treated.
  • Impaction: When the wisdom teeth are unable to fully break through the gums, they can become impacted and cause pain, redness, and discomfort. If you believe that your wisdom teeth are impacted, it is important that you see your dentist as soon as possible.

Wisdom teeth may have a negative connotation, but they may not necessarily cause oral problems for every patient. However, if you are experiencing pain, redness, or swelling of the gums or area around your wisdom teeth, consult with your dentist immediately.