Wisdom Teeth: What Are They, and What Are Your Options for Care?

Whether you are the parent of a young adult or an adult facing tough decisions about how to handle wisdom teeth, the process can be confusing and overwhelming. Read on for some information and support as you navigate how to best handle wisdom teeth.

What Are Wisdom Teeth?

Wisdom teeth are actually a third set of molars, and they begin to break through the gums somewhere between 17-21 years into a person’s life. These teeth were integral to the diet of early humans; as Jenny Green, writing for Colgate, explains, “Throughout most of human history, the typical diet was abrasive to teeth. Under the circumstances, wisdom teeth may have been useful in the past for replacing molars that had become worn out. Now that diets are softer, teeth don’t do this as quickly, and there are no gaps for wisdom teeth to fill.” Another change that Green points out: human jaws have become smaller over time, further complicating the presence of the unneeded wisdom teeth.

What Problems Can Wisdom Teeth Cause?

Some people luck out; their mouths have enough space to accommodate the wisdom teeth, and the teeth descend into the right spots. But for many, this is not the case.

There are a whole host of problems wisdom teeth can bring. They are often are impacted, or trapped under the gums–this can cause many issues beginning with a cyst and ending with damage to roots of other teeth or to bones. When wisdom teeth do break through, they sometimes only come through partially, creating a space for bacteria to make its way into the gums and cause infection. And they often descend to an inappropriate position, introducing the opportunity for bacteria to grow and cavities to develop.  Many times, there is simply no room for wisdom teeth, and their appearance will compromise and crowd other teeth.

How Can Patients Address Wisdom Teeth?

Though the idea of having wisdom teeth removed can be anxiety inducing, it is a very routine procedure. Sedation is an option some patients choose to take advantage of, but a local anesthetic is sufficient to numb the tooth and surrounding area. After some loosening the connective tissue, the tooth is removed. Dissolvable stitches are usually used.

If wisdom teeth are impacted, a surgical procedure may be required in order to extract the teeth from under the gums. In this case, most patients choose to receive a sedative. No matter which approach your wisdom teeth require, your dentist will provide you with a list of important care directions that you should follow closely.