First of all, what is a wisdom tooth?
We all have a first molar (commonly known as the “six-year-old molar” because of when it typically appears in the mouth), a second molar (the “twelve-year-old molar”), and many of us have third molars (the wisdom tooth). These teeth make up the back twelve teeth in our mouth – six of the molars are in the top jaw, and six are in the bottom.
The reason wisdom teeth are discussed so much is because they often don’t grow into the mouth seamlessly like the other teeth tend to: they can get stuck! Dentists will refer to these ones as “impacted”. The wisdom teeth become impacted when there is insufficient space in the jaw to accommodate them. If that’s the case for you, your dentist may recommend wisdom teeth removal.*
So how do I know if I have them?
Wisdom teeth usually erupt into the mouth between the ages of 17 and 25, although there can be great variation here. Your dentist will be keeping an eye out for your wisdom teeth once you hit your teenage years, and by late adolescence will usually have taken an x-ray to determine their location if they haven’t erupted yet. Some people are very aware of their wisdom teeth because they experience a lot of pain while they are growing through the gums, somewhat like the sensation of “teething” that babies experience.
Will I need mine out?
This has to be assessed by the dentist on a case-by-case basis. The risks of taking them out are always weighed against the benefits of taking them out. In some orthodontic situations, for example, it’s preferable to keep the wisdom teeth.
The problems that wisdom teeth can cause include:
- If they are impacted up against the second molar, they can trap food and plaque and cause decay in this tooth.
- Due to their position, they tend to be tricky to clean, so they might be at greater risk of decay.
- If they are impacted in the jawbone, there is a greater risk that they may develop cysts around them.
- They can cause gum problems and loss of bone around the second molar.
- You may experience ongoing pain or discomfort.
Risks of taking them out:
- All surgical procedures carry the risk of post-operative pain, swelling and infection.
- The major risk is damage to nerves that can sit close to the roots of the wisdom teeth.
- The opening of the sinus may require further surgery or treatment.
For these reasons, the dentist must analyse the position of your wisdom teeth and weigh the benefit of extracting them versus leaving them in the mouth. Luckily, dentists have advanced 3D x-ray technology which gives them a detailed picture of the location of the tooth and where it sits in relation to the surrounding structures in the head. As with most medical issues, wisdom teeth are often best dealt with sooner rather than later, so if you are worried about yours, ask your dentist about them!
* Any surgical or invasive procedure carries risks. Before proceeding with a surgical or invasive procedure, you should seek a second opinion from an appropriately qualified health practitioner.