How much do you, as parents, actually know about wisdom teeth? The odds are statistically high that you don’t have any in your mouth. We spend over $3 billion annually on wisdom teeth extractions, which breaks down to five million people annually and about ten million wisdom teeth. Sounds like a huge business that you might not know much about. Let’s dive into the topic of wisdom teeth. We’ll talk about what they are when they erupt, why we have them, why we remove them, and more.
What are Wisdom Teeth?
Wisdom teeth are often also called third molars. They grow in the back of the mouth and, unlike the other teeth, only erupt once. In other words, there is no such thing as a baby wisdom tooth to be later followed by a permanent wisdom tooth. In total, most people have four wisdom teeth. Two on the top (one to each side) and two on the bottom (one per side as with the top). A small portion of the population has more than the typical four wisdom teeth. Those extra wisdom teeth are called supernumerary teeth.
Why Do We Have Wisdom Teeth?
From an anthropological standpoint, the wisdom teeth likely served to help early humans chew their food. Consider that in today’s world, the technology and techniques for cooking allow us to consume softer foods. Furthermore, we have the utensils necessary to cut even the toughest of meats into smaller, more manageable bites, yet our ancestors did not have those luxuries. Moreover, early humans certainly did not have the same level of dental care that we experience today. Therefore, one can imagine that if a permanent molar is cracked, broken, infected, or knocked out, a third molar would be an essential tooth to make up for the loss in chewing power.
Wisdom Teeth Eruption
We’ve written about the timeline for the eruption of the primary teeth, yet as mentioned previously, wisdom teeth aren’t considered baby teeth, even though they only erupt once. Wisdom teeth typically begin to form around the age of ten years old. The eruption occurs in later adolescence, often around 17 years of age but can erupt as late as 25.
Not everyone has four wisdom teeth. Routine X-rays taken by your pediatric dentist will be able to monitor the development of wisdom teeth before eruption.
Do My Teenager’s Wisdom Teeth Need to Be Extracted?
The short answer is: it depends. The long answer requires looking at the potential complications. For example:
Space Issues – If your teenager needs or has braces, they likely have a spacing issue in their jaw. When braces are required in order to create room to straighten out their permanent teeth, eruption of wisdom teeth would likely generate new spacing issues. In this situation, extraction is often recommended.
Impaction – Related to space issues, impaction means that the wisdom tooth cannot erupt because it is trapped by the other molars and the jaw bone. An impacted wisdom tooth is typically very painful and often leads to further complications.
Cyst – An impacted wisdom tooth can lead to the formation of a cyst which will damage the roots of nearby teeth and/or the jaw bone.
Infection – Impacted wisdom teeth, partially erupted wisdom teeth, and wisdom teeth that aren’t positioned well increase the risk of cavities, tooth decay, and infections. The gum is vulnerable to disease and bacteria when they are only partially erupted. When poorly positioned, it is more difficult to properly brush and floss, which invites cavity-causing bacteria and plaque.
If your teenager experiences none of those mentioned above complications and appears to have healthy wisdom teeth, you may not need to have them extracted. Nevertheless, some experts argue for extraction of the third molars even if there appear to be zero current issues.
Why Remove Healthy Wisdom Teeth?
So, what is the argument for extracting wisdom teeth when they have fully erupted, are correctly positioned and therefore routinely cleaned and flossed, and are causing no pain nor other complications?
According to the American Dental Association (ADA), healthy wisdom teeth should be routinely monitored even if extraction is not immediately recommended. As people age, the risk increases for complications with their third molars. The younger a person is when they have a tooth extraction, the easier the process is. The bones around the teeth are softer in adolescence, and the roots of the wisdom teeth aren’t fully developed. Many dentists and oral surgeons argue in support of wisdom teeth extraction as a preventative measure. However, we believe that it should not be a unilateral decision. Instead, one is made on a patient-per-patient basis.
Talk to Your Pediatric Dentist About Your Teenager’s Wisdom Teeth
Don’t be afraid to ask us questions about your teenager’s wisdom teeth. We’re happy to discuss what we see in their X-rays. How are they forming, is there space for their proper eruption? How can you help your teen take appropriate care of erupted wisdom teeth so they don’t cause cavities? These are all questions that are appropriate to ask your pediatric dentist. At Utah Pediatric Dentists, we care about each of our pediatric patients, including their parent’s concerns.
When was the last time your teenager came in for a cleaning? Have they had a dental X-ray within the last year? If not, you’re due for a visit! Give us a call today to schedule an appointment at one of our three convenient locations.