While few people likely look forward to having their wisdom teeth removed, it's become a rite of passage of sorts for people in their late teens and early twenties. Still, there are a lot of misconceptions about what exactly wisdom teeth are, who needs to have them removed, and why they need to be removed. Let's attempt to clear up some of the confusion below.
What are wisdom teeth?
Although their name sounds somewhat mysterious, wisdom teeth are actually the third set of molars. Their name derives from the fact that they come in so late-- typically in the late teenage years or even in the early twenties. Thus, people are thought to be "wiser" by the time this third-- and final-- set of molars arrive.
Is removal really necessary?
Wisdom teeth removal is not always necessary. In fact, these third molars can be beneficial if they're healthy and properly aligned. However, removal is quite common due to a variety of factors, including:
- Misalignment. Unfortunately, wisdom teeth frequently come in at odd angles, damaging nearby teeth and potentially even damaging nerves.
- Impacted teeth. Wisdom teeth are also commonly impacted, or embedded in the gums or jawbone. Impacted teeth can damage adjacent healthy teeth and can grow cysts. Impacted teeth that are partially exposed through the gum often become infected and painful.
- Limited space. Although a couple of extra teeth may seem like no big deal, some people simply don't have room in their mouths for wisdom teeth.
What's the removal procedure like?
Your oral surgeon will usually remove impacted wisdom teeth under general anesthesia so that you don't experience any pain. How complex the surgery is depends on how many wisdom teeth you need to have removed and whether or not they're impacted. When wisdom teeth are impacted, an incision must be made into the gums in order to reach the teeth. When the teeth have already erupted-- either partially or fully-- removal is sometimes relatively simple.
What if I Wait Till I’m Older?
If third molars should be removed, then generally the younger you are the easier it is. Complications with healing go up significantly with age.
What can I expect during recovery?
During the recovery period, you should expect some swelling, which can minimized with the use of ice packs. You should also take any medication prescribed to you by your oral surgeon as directed. While your mouth recovers, stick to soft foods and make sure to stay hydrated. Stay away from hard or crunchy foods and avoid smoking during recovery.
Peter J. Samuels, DDS is a local Gettysburg dentist and a clinical instructor at the University of Maryland School of Dentistry.