It seems that getting your wisdom teeth removed is just a “rite of passage.” But is it true that all wisdom teeth have to be removed?
Although some people are born without wisdom teeth (and some have extras), most of us have four. Officially known as “third molars,” wisdom teeth become visible in x-rays between 10 and 15 years of age and become a concern around the time we graduate from high school (17 or so). Some patients become aware of their wisdom teeth because they hurt, but most just find out they have them from their dentist as he (or she) evaluates their x-rays during a routine examination.
Today, around 90% of Americans have their wisdom teeth removed, but why? Is it because they make the other teeth crooked? That question was the topic of another article I authored entitled “Do Wisdom Teeth Make Your Teeth Crooked?” The take-home-message was that while wisdom teeth may be a factor, there are other things that are probably more to blame. So what are legitimate reasons to have your wisdom teeth removed?
The #1 reason that wisdom teeth need to be removed is that there just isn’t enough room. This usually causes them to remain fully or partially unerupted. If the wisdom teeth remain trapped deep in the bone, they are referred to as “impacted.” Your oral surgeon will discuss the pros and cons of going after teeth in this position. (There are important nerves in that area.) If they are visible in the mouth but don’t have enough room to come in all the way, they are classified as partially impacted. Partially impacted wisdom teeth almost always need to be removed. Because they cannot be cared for properly, they are more susceptible to decay and gum disease. Since they are closer to the surface than fully impacted wisdom teeth, they are easier to remove and there is less risk of damage to the underlying nerves.
The #2 reason that wisdom teeth are removed is because they are difficult to care for. If a patient has decay or gum disease associated with their wisdom teeth, the dentist will usually just recommend removing them. Not only are they hard for the patient to take care, they are equally hard for the dentist to fix. Removal of wisdom teeth in this condition is usually the best option even if there is sufficient space.
So when is it OK to keep your wisdom teeth? The answer is simple. You should keep them if they have plenty of room and are healthy. Even though most wisdom teeth DO end up needing to be removed, the reason usually has little to do with them causing the rest of your teeth to get crooked.
Dr. Greg Jorgensen is a board certified orthodontist providing braces and Invisalign to children, teenagers, and adults in Rio Rancho, New Mexico and Westside Albuquerque. He also lectures nationally on practice management, information technology, and current treatment techniques in orthodontics.