What is a Wisdom Tooth?

“With age comes wisdom” – whether age is truly a determinant of wisdom is up in the air, but we do know that wisdom teeth come in soon after puberty. You may have heard from the grapevine of the numerous wisdom teeth horror stories that have people wincing and squirming in pain when they emerge.

Every adult who has had their wisdom teeth removed had some very interesting things to say about their experience – mostly unpleasant.

However, it is with much dismay that statistics reveal that around 15 million wisdom teeth removals are executed each year.

Despite their high figures, most do not know what these are for and why extractions are necessary. Here is a guide to wisdom teeth and why you may need to get yours removed.

What is a wisdom tooth?

A wisdom tooth, clinically known as the third molar is one of the three molars that make up the back end of the oral cavity. It is located at the posterior-most of the mouth, one in each quadrant or section of the mouth.

The age of eruption can vary from person to person but they typically emerge between late teens to early twenties, commonly between the ages of 16 and 21.

They rarely erupt after the age of 25, which is indicative of an “impacted” wisdom tooth that cannot erupt through the layer of gum spontaneous by themselves.

It is also possible for you to have none, fewer or more than four wisdom teeth in your mouth.

Why do we have them?

A wisdom tooth is a vestigial accessory of the mouth that serves no real function today and is present at the back end of the oral cavity.

In ancient times, our ancestors used these rear-grinders to thoroughly chew up foliage and raw meat as they lacked the ability to digest cellulose (the compound that makes up plant cell walls) effectively.

As we have assimilated to modern society, the use of cutlery and the capacity to cook and cut food into bite-sized pieces have rendered the function of wisdom teeth rudimentary.

Additionally, our ancestors possibly had larger jaws to accommodate all four wisdom teeth in their mouths without pain, discomfort, and inflammation associated with impaction.

What is wisdom tooth impaction?

Sometimes, a wisdom tooth although fully developed cannot break through the overlying layer of gums and hence cannot fully erupt in the mouth like normal teeth.

This is known as impaction, or “impacted” wisdom teeth. One that breaks out only halfway is known as a partially impacted wisdom tooth. In either instance, the impacted tooth begins to grow at an angle that can be disruptive to the development of other teeth and the surrounding contact tissues.

Each of these angles designates a different course of action:

  • At an angle toward the second molar (mesial impaction)
  • At an angle toward the back of the mouth (distal impaction)
  • At a right angle to other teeth within the jawbone or in a “lying down” position (horizontal impaction)
  • Straight up at a right angle but stays trapped within the jawbone due to lack of space (vertical impaction)
  • Reverse or upside-down in the back of the mouth (inverted impaction)

How do I know that I need a wisdom tooth extraction?

An impacted tooth can cause a lot of problems in your mouth namely:

  • Inflammation and infection of the surrounding gum tissues
  • Intense tooth pain at the site
  • Swollen, red, bleeding, and tender gums (gingivitis or periodontitis)
  • Tooth decay in a partially erupted wisdom tooth
  • Damage to the nearby tooth or surrounding bone
  • Development of a fluid-filled sac (cyst) around the wisdom tooth
  • Collection of pus (abscess) in your wisdom teeth
  • Bacterial infection in the cheek, tongue, or throat (cellulitis)
  • Shifting of the other teeth
  • Crowding of the adjacent teeth, causing misalignment
  • Sinus issues and congestion due to impacted wisdom teeth

How is a wisdom tooth removed?

Wisdom teeth removal usually needs surgical intervention, however, the surgery should take no longer than an hour to perform.

An x-ray is taken prior to the surgery to determine the status of the impacted wisdom tooth. A local anesthetic will be given to numb the tooth and the surrounding area.

Following this, these steps are taken by your oral surgeon to safely remove the wisdom tooth:

  • A small incision will be made in the gum to access the wisdom tooth
  • A small piece of the bone covering the tooth is removed.
  • The tooth may be dissected into smaller parts to make it easier for removal.
  • You may feel some pressure before the tooth is removed.
  • The dentist rocks the tooth back and forth to loosen it.
  • Upon removal, the surgical site is disinfected.

Gauze will be applied to the wound site and you will be asked to apply pressure on it by gently biting down on it for up to an hour after the surgery. In cases where conscious sedation is used, you may want to have your family member drive you home as you may be groggy for a few hours. You will also be instructed to consume something cold immediately after you remove the gauze to alleviate pain to the wound site.

People between the ages of 16 and 19 should have their wisdom teeth evaluated by their dentist to assess the teeth for potential impaction and to see if the removal is necessary. Contact your dentist today.

Updated On October 7, 2020

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