We do more than smile and chew with our teeth. From the first time they show up, just a few months into our lives, our teeth become a focal point of our care routine. From regular brushing and flossing to scheduled dental visits, it’s clear that teeth are sensitive instruments, and can even signal when other problems are occurring. Most mouths only have room for 28 teeth, but when all is said and done, you’re likely to end up with about 32 adult teeth. It’s a tight squeeze.
These extra teeth are known as wisdom teeth — an old relic from when our ancestors ate rougher foods and needed extra teeth to replace the ones they lost. We’re better at keeping our teeth these days, but the extra ones still grow in behind our molars, typically when we’re between ages 17 and 21.
Since nearly everyone will have to deal with wisdom teeth at some point, it’s helpful to know what to expect. We spoke to John Gillis, DMD, an oral and maxillofacial surgeon at Banner – University Medical Center Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery Clinic in Phoenix, AZ, about the most important facts surrounding wisdom teeth. Though wisdom tooth removal may be inconvenient, hopefully this article makes it a little less painful.
When should I get them removed?
Every once in a while, a person’s wisdom teeth grow in and don’t need removal. But this is quite rare. It’s only when they don’t crowd the other teeth, and if the patient can also keep their wisdom teeth clean, Dr. Gillis explained. The American Dental Association (ADA) lists the following signs that it’s time for your wisdom teeth to be removed:
- Damage to neighboring teeth
- Gum disease
- Tooth decay
- Treatment for braces or other dental care
Playing the waiting game
These signs will likely be mild at first. Dr. Gillis said that patients will usually experience some swelling and irritation of the gum tissue around the emerging wisdom teeth. But even if they’re not painful, your new wisdom teeth bring problems if left alone.
Dr. Gillis warned against waiting. “Many patients believe that as long as they’re not in pain, they don’t need their wisdom teeth extracted, but being pain free does not mean being disease free.”
There just isn’t enough space in most peoples’ mouths for these extra teeth, and that overcrowding can cause damage to the teeth, nerves and bones in your mouth. Getting your wisdom teeth removed may seem bothersome in the moment but leaving them in is far less convenient long-term.
Since wisdom teeth are so common, dentists and other dental professionals know what to look for. Getting regular dental checkups is a good way to make sure these pesky wisdom teeth don’t cause more problems than they should.
How are my wisdom teeth taken out?
Once it’s time to remove your wisdom teeth to come out, your dentist will usually refer you to an oral surgeon or maxillofacial surgeon. There are different methods for getting these teeth out, based on how they’ve been growing in. Rest assured, trained dental professionals follow sanitization protocols, and will administer local anesthesia (and often general anesthesia) so you don’t feel pain during the surgery.
If your wisdom teeth have already broken through the surface of your gums, the removal is usually pretty simple, like it would be with any other tooth. Things get more complex if you have impacted wisdom teeth, meaning they’re trapped in your jaw or under your gums. In these instances, your dental professional makes an incision through the gum’s surface, above the tooth, and removes any bone still covering the tooth. Then the tooth is taken out. They may break the tooth into smaller pieces first. This tends to be easier when you’re younger, as the tooth’s roots aren’t completely formed yet, and the surrounding bone is softer.
What should I do after they’re removed?
Post-surgery, you’ll need someone to take you home and keep you comfortable until the anesthesia fully wears off. It’s important to get lots of rest, and do things to reduce the swelling, like keeping your head elevated and using an ice pack when possible, for the first 48 hours. Dry socket occurs when the blood clot in the socket does not form well or is lost. To avoid this painful condition, keep the surgical area clean, shift your diet to liquid and soft foods for a few days and avoid straws and smoking to completely heal. Your dentist’s or surgeon’s office will give you additional post-op instructions, based on your individual needs.
In any case, know that wisdom teeth removal is among the most common dental procedures out there.