Wisdom Teeth: Why We Don’t Really Need ‘Em

Wisdom teeth can be painful to develop. This is why dentists try to extract them before they cause toothache. Find out how to deal with your pesky third molars.

Wisdom Teeth: Why we don't really need them

Image from Corrie Barklimore on Flickr.

The wisdom teeth are the oral equivalent of the troublesome appendix. These days, their only real purpose seems to be causing havoc inside the mouth. Unlike the rest of the adult teeth, they may (or may not) develop long after the mouth has matured and settled down into relative good health. They might be impacted (or they might not). They may cause pain (or develop without complications).

Ultimately, the wisdom do want they want. They are the rebels of the dental world. And, just to make all of this uncertainty even more frustrating, we don’t even need them. So, if your wisdom teeth do appear and end up causing pain, you can be reassured (or not) with the knowledge that they are, essentially, useless.

If you have ever wondered why these pesky third molars are talked about with such scorn, it is time for a little history lesson. For many scientists, the development of the wisdom teeth – and the fact that some of us do not develop them – is actually an indication that we might still be evolving.

Where once these powerful teeth were needed for chewing up raw meat, roots, and other tough stuff, we now eat quite soft foods and have a lot of extra help with dental care. If there are problems with our teeth, we can visit a dentist. We use toothpaste, toothbrushes, and dental floss to keep molars strong. Our jaws are much smaller and narrower than they were.

As a result of all of these things, we now rely on the strength and number of our teeth a lot less than we did when we were prehistoric hunter gatherers. Think about it, a person can lose all of their teeth these days and still eat, speak, and chew. Technically, in light of replacements and artificial teeth, we do not need our own at all. And this is why the wisdom teeth have started to become a problem for human beings.

The Thoroughly Modern War with Wisdom Teeth

If you mention wisdom teeth at a party or other function, you will probably be bombarded with stories about impacted molars and painful extractions. Today, it is common practice for dentists to completely remove wisdom teeth. This can happen whether or not the teeth are healthy. If that sounds strange, consider how painful it would be to have a fully developed adult tooth trapped beneath the gum line.

It puts pressure on the gum tissue, pushes against the other molars, and leads to quite intense toothache for many people. So, dentists remove them. In the past, the development of wisdom teeth was so troublesome for patients that pretty much everybody was advised to have an extraction as soon as it began. These days, it is generally agreed that wisdom teeth should only be removed if they are causing pain or trauma.

And there is a good chance that they might not cause any trouble for a person. In lots of cases, they develop normally and push through the gum line without obstacle. There is likely to be a little tenderness and soreness, but this is standard for new teeth. Or, they might not appear at all. More and more often, scientists are discovering that humans are maturing without any wisdom teeth at all.

This is more convincing evidence for continued evolution, because there are an increasing amount of people with just one or two wisdom teeth. It is a good indication that the body is reconsidering its need for these molars. They are not needed for chewing tough meats and the resources could be better used elsewhere. As with the appendix, all value seems to have been lost in a murky prehistoric past.

Wisdom Teeth and the Struggle to Develop

So, at one time, our mouths were the perfect size and shape for all of our teeth (including the wisdom teeth, two to either side). Our jawbones were longer and more protruding and all of the teeth had a place in the dental line up. As our jawbone has shrunk, over the course of evolution, the very back molars (the wisdom teeth) have been slowly pushed aside.

As evolution is a very slow and cautious process, the wisdom teeth usually still grow, but they now do so at an unhealthy angle or with no room to develop and emerge through the gum line. More often than not, the molars grow almost sideways. They push against the healthy teeth and become deeply impacted. This means that they begin to emerge healthy, but later get stuck and start to cause pain.

As they are no longer needed for eating, extraction has no lasting consequences. Though it can be a little distressing for anybody who has never had a tooth pulled before. Luckily, the process is very simple and a good dentist is always willing to talk through the procedure with nervous or anxious patients. Ultimately, an extraction is designed to alleviate pain. It does not cause it. If you are suffering with an impacted wisdom tooth, it is the best option.

The term ‘wisdom tooth’ has a surprisingly affectionate origin. As these teeth usually appear between the ages of 17 and 25 years, they are called this because it is an age at which many young people pursue higher education. These are your ‘wisdom’ years. In some cases, they develop a little later or not at all, but generally speaking, you can expect them at this time.

Preparing for a Wisdom Tooth Extraction

The process designed to extract problem wisdom teeth is very simple. It can cause anxiety for some patients, purely because they know what must happen, but the procedure is not painful. The dentist administers an anesthetic before starting treatment, so that the work can be performed comfortably.

It gets a little harder if most of the tooth is below the gum line, because the dentist then has to cut deeper into the tissue to pull it out. Nevertheless, once the problem tooth has been located and exposed, it is entirely removed from the mouth; sometimes in one piece and sometimes in several. As this leaves a wound, the dentist then has to stitch the gum tissue closed.

The patient is asked to bite down on a piece of gauze after the treatment, as a way to help the blood clot over the wound and form a protective barrier. The most difficult part of the healing process for most people is simply maintaining this barrier. You must be very careful not to knock, dislodge, or disturb the blood over the wound, as it is providing a defence against bacteria and germs.

The extraction process is usually quite quick, but it does depend on how deeply impacted the wisdom tooth happens to be. The typical treatment lasts around sixty minutes. It is essential that a good aftercare routine is followed. This includes gently gargling with salt water twice a day, brushing extremely carefully, and taking great care not to touch or pick at the wound. In time, the swelling will subside and the wound will heal.

There is no need for a dentist to replace the tooth with any kind of artificial substitute. The wisdom teeth are entirely redundant and their loss does not cause harm to the remaining molars. You cannot see whether or not these teeth are missing, because they sit right at the back of the mouth anyway. So, this is not a treatment that requires a cosmetic follow up. If you have more than one impacted wisdom tooth, the dentist will likely remove them all at once.

Looking Ahead to the Future of the Third Molars

The debate about whether we are losing our wisdom teeth, as a result of evolution, is a hot topic. There are some scientists who believe that their redundancy means that the mouth is still changing. But, there are others who are keen to stress that the role of DNA in the development of wisdom teeth is still very mysterious.

Yes, around 35% of the population do not develop any wisdom teeth. However, these molars remain the only teeth to develop after birth. The rest, adult and baby teeth, are all present from the moment we are born. They merely emerge at different times and in different patterns. It is therefore important to ask whether or not evolution could actually have any influence on this kind of development?

The process of evolution changes characteristics for living things that are not born yet. This is ‘survival of the fittest.’ If a human being with longer legs has managed to prosper and survive, it is likely that their children will also have long legs. It is something that is decided for us, by our genes, before we appear.

So, does evolution have any part to play at all in a process that occurs well into maturity? For science, the mystery has always been an intriguing one. And in an even more remarkable turn of events, it is believed that dental scientists are close to developing treatments that can prevent the growth of wisdom teeth altogether. If there is a time when the third molars do not exist, it makes sense to think that this window could be made permanent.

The Ethical Minefield of Evolutionary Interference

This kind of treatment, if it does emerge, is likely to take the form of a laser or chemical guided procedure. And this raises another question; should we be interfering in the natural evolution of our mouths? Sure, the wisdom teeth are troublesome and can lead to unwanted dental procedures, but do we have a right to interfere with that?

In many ways, it would be the equivalent of recommending that all children have their appendixes removed, just in case. For many people, the move would end up being unnecessary, because not everybody suffers a burst appendix. Just like not all people end up having problems with their wisdom teeth.

Perhaps the future of wisdom teeth extractions should be left up to the patient. It seems fair to let people decide for themselves if they want to take the risk of developing painful third molars or have them dealt with before they grow. It is important to realise that there are no serious health benefits associated with either option.

The growth of wisdom teeth can put pressure on the other molars, but a good dental care routine is likely to prevent decay. However, it is trickier to keep an impacted molar clean – primarily because it is jagged and only half visible – so if you do have one, buy an interdental brush. This is like a regular toothbrush, but it has a thin and wiry head. You can use this to probe between the teeth and remove any stubborn food morsels.

Learning How to Spot the Signs of Third Molars

If you do not keep a wisdom tooth clean, it absolutely can start to decay. And this is when it will begin to spell problems for the other teeth. So, weigh up all of your options and consult your dentist if you believe that your third molars are starting to develop. The growth may be signalled by a tenderness and swelling at the back corners of the mouth, on either row. You might not grow all of the teeth at once. You might not even develop all four.

It is common for people to just grow one or two wisdom teeth. If you do have a tenderness in the aforementioned areas, use your tongue to gently probe the gum tissue behind the regular teeth. You can sometimes feel a hard bulge or protrusion below the gum line. This should be firm and feel as hard as a tooth. It should not be spongey or springy. If you have any soft growths in the mouth, get them checked out by a dentist immediately.

It will only take your dentist a minute or two to probe the inside of your mouth and confirm whether or not you are developing wisdom teeth. At this point, the specialist will sit down with you and discuss the best course of action. If there is no pain, the tooth could be growing at the right angle and emerge without problems. As there is no way to guarantee this, the dentist may offer to carry out an extraction to save you the risk of trouble later.

The decision to go ahead is entirely up to you, but it is always worth listening carefully to the advice of a dentist. You must not let a fear of extraction prevent you from asking for the treatment, but it alleviates pain and removes the source of discomfort. Yes, there will be tenderness and swelling for a few weeks after the treatment, but the ache in the gums will disappear and not return.

The Reason Why Knowledge is Power

If we can understand why our bodies do the things that they do, we can learn to respond in the best possible way. This is particularly true of changes in the mouth, because this area is a delicate environment. If you switch up your diet, physical routine, prescription medication, lifestyle, sleeping habits, or a million other things, it can have an impact on your oral health.

So, knowing how to react to pain and how to pre-empt it is very valuable. With the help of your dentist, you can keep an eye on everything that goes on inside your mouth. Use your regular exams and appointments to form a comprehensive picture of your oral situation. Ask questions, raise concerns, take an interest in your teeth.

Then, when changes do occur, you are ready for them. While the development of wisdom teeth is, admittedly, frustrating, it does not have to be scary. It is a natural process and it can be dealt with easily. You just need to speak and let your dental health professional know what is going on with your teeth. If you have recently had an extraction, it is your responsibility to take care of the wound and keep it clean. Find out how a Carefree Dental plan could help you with this.

This is easier than it looks. Brush twice a day (as you usually would), but avoid the socket area where the wisdom tooth once was. You should not brush over this area. It will cause a lot of pain and it will dislodge the protective barrier. You can take over the counter painkillers to help deal with the aftermath of an extraction, but avoid aspirin. It thins the blood and makes it harder for the wound to heal. Don’t forget to gargle with salt water; it is a mild disinfectant.

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