Wisdom Teeth – “None the wiser”

Wisdom Teeth

Why do we have wisdom teeth? Where did the name come from? Should we have them removed and if so when? If you have ever wondered about your wisdom teeth or “third molars” this article is for you. Read on to find out more about wisdom teeth…

Wisdom teeth are the last molars to come in, and are known as the third molars. In most adults, there are four wisdom teeth, but many individuals are naturally missing one or more. Our third molars are thought to be called “wisdom teeth” because they erupt between the ages of 17 and 25, when we are thought to be older and thus wiser than when all of our other adult teeth erupted.

Evolution – what would Darwin say about wisdom teeth?

Our wisdom teeth used to be important back when our species was developing. Until recently (on an evolutionary scale, that is) early humans had larger jaws than they do today, so there was extra space for another set of molars. At that time, early humans had a different diet – for example, more coarse and difficult to chew food – so more molars at the back were important to be able to grind up the food. In addition, teeth were not taken care of in the way they are today, and it was common to lose teeth at an early age. The wisdom teeth that came in around age 20 could push the other teeth forward and fill in the empty space in the jaw left by other teeth that might have fallen out.

These days, our wisdom teeth are considered “vestigial”, that is, they are structures that used to perform an important purpose in an earlier stage of the development of the species, but today they don’t have any useful function. Interestingly, about 35% of the population do not develop wisdom teeth at all, so one wonders if the human population is slowly but gradually losing the development of these unnecessary teeth.

So many teeth, so little space

When the wisdom teeth develop normally but the jaw is too full so that there is no space for them come in, the wisdom teeth are called “impacted”. Impacted teeth may remain partly or fully trapped in the soft tissue or jawbone. They are not in the normal position and because of this don’t function normally. Impacted teeth at the very back of the mouth can be problematic because they can be difficult to clean properly and may accumulate food debris, bacteria and plaque around them. Over time, the partially erupted wisdom teeth may become decayed, infected, abscessed, or gum disease may occur. Depending on the angle of the wisdom teeth against the second molars, the teeth next to the wisdom teeth may also be affected by the inability to effectively clean the area near the wisdom teeth, and may develop cavities. In addition, the wisdom teeth may exert pressure on the other teeth, which can disrupt the alignment of all of the teeth and cause crowding in the mouth. This is may be of particular concern if the individual has completed a course of orthodontics as a teenager, as the force from the wisdom teeth may undo the changes achieved by the orthodontics.

How to know if you have wisdom teeth

By taking a radiograph (an “X-ray”) your dentist can determine if you have wisdom teeth as well as their position relative to your other teeth. If you are in your late teenage years and if your wisdom teeth are impacted, your dentist may recommend that they be removed. Removal of wisdom teeth is usually done by an oral surgeon, and is generally easiest in the late teenage years or early twenties, before the wisdom tooth roots are fully formed and when the surrounding bone is less dense. Removal at this time is a good idea because it can prevent problems from developing at a later age. In young people the time required to recover and heal the area after the removal is also less than in older individuals. The surgery can be performed under local or general anaesthetic, and is usually minimally disruptive for most people. The difficulty of the surgery varies depending on the number and position of the wisdom teeth to be extracted, and your dentist can advise you in this regard.

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