If your wisdom teeth are causing tooth or jaw pain, having them extracted is a simple decision: After all, extraction is the only real way to “fix” a wisdom tooth problem. But what if your wisdom teeth emerge without causing pain or other issues? Is it still a good idea to have them removed? The answer might surprise you.
What are wisdom teeth?
Wisdom teeth are the very last molars (back teeth) to come in, typically emerging sometime in your late teens. The Latin name for wisdom teeth is dens sapientiae, which means “good sense” or “intelligence.” The name may seem a little odd, but they got their nickname because they emerge at the point when you’re about to enter adulthood, and thus “wiser” than when your other adult (permanent) teeth erupted during your childhood years.
The name “wisdom teeth” sounds like a good thing, but unfortunately, many wisdom teeth cause a lot of problems either when they erupt from the gums or later in life. Why? Because once wisdom teeth erupt, you’ve already got all your other teeth, including all your permanent molars. That means your mouth is already pretty crowded, and there’s just not a lot of room left for those four new molars. As a result, wisdom teeth often come in crooked or even sideways. Some may protrude through the side of your gums instead of from the top like your other molars. And sometimes, wisdom teeth can become impacted — “stuck” under the neighboring molars. When that happens, they can cause significant pain, disrupting the positions of your other teeth and sometimes causing serious infections as well.
Certainly, if your wisdom teeth are coming in crooked or if they’re impacted, you’ll need to have them extracted to preserve and protect your other teeth and prevent really serious problems from occurring. That’s a pretty simple decision. But what if you’re among those relatively few patients who have enough room for their wisdom teeth? What if your wisdom teeth emerge and appear to cause no noticeable problems? Do you still need to have them out? The answer often is “yes.”
How wisdom teeth affect your oral health
Now, it’s true: Dentists spend the bulk of their time helping you keep your natural teeth for as long as possible, with routine checkups, cleanings and state-of-the-art preventive care. But when it comes to some oral health issues, extraction actually makes sense. Wisdom teeth are a really good example. Even though your wisdom teeth may emerge without incident, and even though they may not be causing you pain now, there’s a good chance they can cause serious problems in your future — and it mostly has to do with their location.
Disease, infection and tooth loss
Your wisdom teeth are located far back in your jaw, pretty much near the jaw joint (also called the temporomandibular joint). That location makes them really difficult to reach with a toothbrush or floss. As a result, wisdom teeth frequently become harbors for sticky plaque and hard tartar. Plaque and tartar contain a lot of bacteria — the same bacteria that cause decay and gum disease. When those bacteria aren’t removed by brushing and flossing, they can cause gum disease, the leading cause of tooth loss among adults. For teeth that are relatively easy to reach, you can keep gum disease at bay with careful brushing and flossing. But because of their location, wisdom teeth are notoriously difficult to keep clean, even with the most scrupulous hygiene routines. That means not only can your wisdom teeth be at risk for infection and tooth loss, but the neighboring molars are also more likely to develop disease and infection. Having your wisdom teeth removed eliminates those risks and can help preserve the health of your other molars as well.
Temporomandibular joint syndrome (TMJ)
TMJ is a chronic, painful condition that develops when your jaw joints become irritated and inflamed. People with TMJ experience symptoms like jaw pain, chronic headaches, sore teeth, and often “sticking” sensations or clicking noises when they chew or yawn. Wisdom teeth can contribute to TMJ problems by altering your bite pattern and balance, putting uneven strain on your jaw joints that can lead to irritation and inflammation inside the joints. Many people with TMJ develop severe nighttime grinding issues (bruxism) that can be difficult to control. Over time, excessive grinding can damage tooth surfaces, exposing them to decay, disease, breakage and loss. Having your wisdom teeth extracted early, before they have a chance to disrupt your normal bite balance, is one way to help prevent the onset of TMJ — and one more reason why having your wisdom teeth extracted is a good idea, even if they’re not causing symptoms right now.
Wisdom teeth extraction: What to expect
Lots of patients are nervous or anxious about having their wisdom teeth removed, and to be honest, that’s pretty natural. The good news is, our dentists are highly trained and experienced in wisdom teeth removals, including complex cases like impactions and teeth with really long roots. Prior to your appointment, we’ll assess your tooth with digital X-rays using state-of-the-art technology to get a complete picture of your teeth, from tip to root. We’ll also discuss what to expect during your procedure and recovery, and we’ll answer all your questions and concerns. On the day of your procedure, you’ll receive anesthesia that lets you nap all the way through the extraction so you’ll feel absolutely no pain or discomfort. Once your procedure is complete, you’ll spend a brief time “waking up” before being discharged home.
Recovery is pretty straightforward, too. Because you’ll have anesthesia, you’ll need to have someone drive you home, and you’ll want them to stay with you for a bit while you get settled. You’re going to be sleepy, so napping is a good idea. Keep your head elevated to help reduce swelling, and use ice packs as directed. You’ll probably also have a prescription for pain relievers to aid in the initial stages of healing. We’ll give you a complete set of instructions to follow so your recovery can be as quick and comfortable as possible. Be sure to follow the instructions closely, including the instructions on how to clean the area and what foods you should eat. (Hint: It’s a great time to satisfy your ice cream cravings!) It’ll take a few weeks for the surgical site to completely heal, but it only takes about three to four days to recover and feel like yourself again. If your teeth were impacted or the surgery was more complex, recovery might take a week or so. Three things to remember: Don’t rush your recovery, follow your care instructions closely and call the office if you have any concerns. We’re always here to help.
Why it’s not a good idea to delay extraction
You can have your wisdom teeth (or any teeth) extracted at any age, but for wisdom teeth, it makes a lot of sense to have them removed as early as possible — ideally in your teens or early 20s. That’s because when you’re younger, your jaw bones aren’t completely hardened yet, which means the extraction might be easier and recovery can be faster. As you get older and your bone completely hardens, it can be more difficult to remove the entire tooth (and their long roots); that means the procedure can be a bit more complex, and it can take longer for the surrounding bone and other tissue to heal. Plus, the longer you wait to have your wisdom teeth removed, the higher the chance that you’ll wind up developing an infection or other issue in your teeth or gums. Many patients in high school and college opt to have their wisdom teeth removed during winter break, spring break or summer vacation when they have ample time to relax and recover.
What if you’re already older than your early 20s? Is it too late to have your wisdom teeth extracted? Absolutely not. Before your procedure, you’ll have ample opportunity to talk to your dentist about the procedure and recovery process so you can decide how much time to take off from work and other activities in order to give yourself time to heal and feel better.
Bottom line: Having your wisdom teeth removed isn’t nearly as “scary” as you’ve been led to believe: State-of-the-art surgical techniques and anesthesia make the procedure itself completely painless, and a few days spent napping and indulging in ice cream will have you back to your old self. The key is to act now, before those teeth start causing major problems. To learn more about wisdom tooth removal at Smile Workshop, give us a call at 1-888-833-8404 and schedule an appointment to talk to your dentist today.