Human adults commonly have 28-32 teeth, although they can have more in rare cases. In our mid-teens, most of us will start developing 4 extra teeth from the normal 28 we all develop through-out childhood. These extra 4 teeth, commonly known as wisdom teeth are the third molars. Wisdom teeth tend to come through between the ages of 17 and 25, however, many people are familiar with the problems they can cause. When this happens, the general course of action is to visit a dentist where a removal procedure is carried out.
Interestingly, some people never experience any problems with their wisdom teeth. Most people generally have jaws which are too small to support an extra set of teeth. This means that when the wisdom teeth erupt, they simply have no space to grow, and thus begin to affect other teeth, causing further dental complications.
For people fortunate enough to have sufficient space for these teeth to grow, this isn’t an issue. Some people’s wisdom teeth never actually erupt and they too never experience problems. Interestingly, evolutionary scientists have proposed theories concerning wisdom teeth in human beings.
Wisdom Teeth & Human Evolution.
Early humans needed third molars and bigger jaws as their diet mostly consisted of tough roots, raw meat and various fibrous leaves. Therefore, having these extra teeth was advantageous and necessary for survival. Also, dentists weren’t around in those days, so perhaps this set of third molars could have served as a back-up if the others fell out.
There is some scientific evidence that suggests an evolutionary shift in modern humans concerning wisdom teeth and jaw development. Scientists at the University of Pennsylvania identified a gene called MHY16. They discovered that mutations in this gene led to narrower jaws (possibly to allow our brains to grow larger).
Bigger brains led to more sophisticated modern diets which may also have slowly eliminated the need for extra teeth. These new diets include more processed foods which are easier to chew on. Could this mean that people without wisdom teeth are more evolved?
Wisdom Tooth Complications
For most people, wisdom teeth cause complications. The most common complication is known as impaction. This is where the wisdom tooth (or teeth) grow(s) at an angle or erupts in the wrong place. Some wisdom teeth grow towards the front of the mouth while some grow at a 90 degree angle, growing into the roots of neighboring molars! Your dentist will assess your teeth via examination or sometimes x-ray, to see if they need removal. If there is impaction or a possible chance the tooth will create problems later on, removal will be recommended.
The reason impacted wisdom teeth almost always need removal is that the impaction can lead to infection and discomfort. Also, because these teeth can be difficult to clean, they can become rotten and they can start affecting neighbouring teeth. But that’s not all – they can push upon existing teeth and cause crowding and crookedness.
Partial eruption is another complication associated with wisdom teeth. When wisdom teeth are partially erupted, they are partly covered by gums, meaning food can be trapped underneath. This can lead to tooth decay as the food particles can putrefy, providing a breeding ground for bacteria.
Partially erupted teeth can also perpetually irritate the gums which can cause pain and discomfort. In such cases, it’s always a good idea to seek a dentist’s advice and possibly proceed with extraction.
Wisdom Tooth Extraction: What to expect
Wisdom tooth extraction is a much maligned procedure and experience which is often associated with extreme pain and farfetched horror stories. Exaggeration is rife as people exchange bad experiences while trying to make theirs sound as gruesome as possible. For most people, the reality of wisdom tooth extraction is much less dramatic, rather mundane and in fact, relatively trouble free.
In most cases, a wisdom tooth is best removed before it attaches to the jaw and this is usually determined by an x-ray. When it attaches to the jaw, part of the jaw may need to be fractured off, which as you can imagine, can lead to a lot of discomfort post extraction.
Most extractions are performed under local anaesthetic and are generally painless and quickly done. Your local dentist will give you all the information about the procedure and what to expect beforehand.
Possible complications after removal.
Once a wisdom tooth has been removed, complications may develop. Most are a natural consequence of the procedure, however, some are within the patient’s control and can be avoided. When a patient fails to follow the aftercare procedure as prescribed by a dentist, ‘dry-socket’ can occur.
Dry socket is when the bone following extraction is exposed in the mouth and it usually occurs 3-4 days post-extraction. It occurs when a blood clot fails to form in the extracted tooth socket or if the clot has become dislodged. This leads to a lengthier healing process and increased pain. The most common symptom is a dull, aching pain which can radiate across the face or even down to the neck. There can also be a bad taste in the mouth and at times, bad breath.
Other complications include bleeding, infection of the extraction site – which can be life threatening – and paraesthesia, which is numbness in the mouth. This occurs if there is nerve damage during the extraction process. The numbness can last a few days/weeks or sometimes, be permanent.
If you are experiencing problems with wisdom teeth, it’s definitely a good idea to visit the dentist to get it checked out. Horror stories about wisdom teeth removal tend to be the exception, rather than the norm. Most people who have had smooth procedures are less likely to speak up about it – some may even forget. But you’ll sure hear exaggerated accounts from those who experienced particularly uncomfortable extractions or unpleasant complications. The truth is those who get it taken care of nice and early (<30 years of age), have a decreased risk of complications. Even then, the risk of complications after age 30 is still relatively small.