Why do we have wisdom teeth when they seem to only cause problems? Read on to find out more about the humble third molar wisdom tooth as it is commonly known in dental circles—the last tooth many of us get as adults.
THEY HAVEN’T SERVED ANY PURPOSE FOR HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS OF YEARS.
Imagine, for a moment, that you’re a prehistoric man or woman. You subsist largely on raw meat, roots, and leaves. You’d need some pretty powerful chompers to cut up your food, right? That was where your third molars—also known as wisdom teeth—came in. Today, our palates are somewhat more refined, and we prefer softer foods (think avocado toast and smoothies). Plus, modern cooking tools have put our wisdom teeth out of business.
They’re not just pointless, though—they’re also problematic. Wisdom teeth are a “scar of human evolution,” according to Princeton University researcher Alan Mann. About 800,000 to 200,000 years ago, early humans’ brains started growing at a rapid pace—so much so that they ballooned to three times their original size. When that happened, it changed the shape of the braincase (the back part of the skull) and its position relative to the dental arcade (rows of teeth). The dental arcade shortened, and suddenly there was no longer enough room for third molars. And since the genes that determine the makeup of our teeth evolve separately from those that control brain development, humans were stuck dealing with the consequences of a crowded mouth.
NATURE MAY EVENTUALLY SORT IT OUT, THOUGH.
On the bright side, scientists say evolution may eventually take care of the problem, meaning that people in the future would not develop wisdom teeth. It’s anyone’s guess as to when this will occur, though.
THE NUMBER OF WISDOM TEETH VARIES FROM PERSON TO PERSON …
It’s possible that you have one, two, three, four, or none at all. Another possibility, although it’s rare, is to have more than four wisdom teeth, which are called supernumerary teeth.
Genetic factors like jaw size might determine the number of wisdom teeth that a person has. Your lineage may also have something to do with it. Practically no Aboriginal Tasmanians have third molars, but almost 100 percent of indigenous Mexicans have at least one wisdom tooth. African Americans and Asian Americans are also more likely than people of European descent to have fewer than four wisdom teeth. This variation can be attributed to a random genetic mutation that arose thousands of years ago, thereby preventing the formation of wisdom teeth. This mutation is more prevalent in certain populations.
YOUR WISDOM TEETH CAN ERUPT AT ANY TIME.
According to Guinness World Records, the oldest person to ever grow a wisdom tooth was 94 years old. There is a wide variation in ages when eruption occurs; the oldest person we have seen with a newly erupting wisdom tooth here in Pembroke Dental was a lady in her eighties- it was a bit of a surprise to us all!
Apparently, wisdom teeth have been acting erratically for thousands of years. Aristotle documented this phenomenon in his book The History of Animals: “Cases have been known in women upwards of 80 years old where at the very close of life the wisdom-teeth have come up, causing great pain in their coming; and cases have been known of the like phenomenon in men too.”
In most cases, though, wisdom teeth erupt when you’re in your late teens or early twenties.
THE FIRST IMPACTED TOOTH WAS RECORDED ABOUT 15,000 YEARS AGO.
When wisdom teeth don’t have enough room to grow normally, they get stuck in the jaw and fail to erupt. These are called impacted teeth. The oldest known case of an impacted tooth was found in the skeleton of a 25- to 35-year-old woman who died some 15,000 years ago. This case cast doubt on the theory that impacted teeth are a modern ailment, caused by recent changes in our dietary habits.
SOME DENTISTS SAY THAT IMPACTED WISDOM TEETH SHOULD BE REMOVED …
Many people get their wisdom teeth removed, even if there isn’t any pain or discernible problem aside from impacting. Known as prophylactic surgery, this preventative practice is common in the U.S., but in recent years there has been some debate as to whether it’s necessary. One popular theory holds that most people either have problems with their wisdom teeth or will at some point in the future. “It’s hard to get a percentage, but probably 75 to 80 percent of people do not meet the criteria of being able to successfully maintain their wisdom teeth,” Dr. Louis K. Rafetto, who headed a task force on wisdom teeth, told The New York Times in 2011.
Orthodontists are often of the opinion that wisdom teeth are ticking time bombs. From an orthodontic perspective, third molars can interfere with your bite and cause your teeth to wear down, and in some cases, can also cause cysts, tumours, nerve damage, periodontal disease (affecting the gums and other areas around the teeth) and TMJ disorders (affecting the jaw joint). Plus, if your teeth are too crowded and you aren’t able to brush and floss them normally, it can lead to additional issues, such as localised gum disease and cavities.
. … WHILE OTHERS SAY YOU SHOULD AVOID IT.
Dental practitioners in the UK put an end to routine wisdom tooth extractions in 1998, citing a study at the University of York that reportedly found no scientific evidence to support the practice.
There isn’t a whole lot of concrete data on the subject, and much of it is conflicting—so it really comes down to the individual dentist’s and patient’s preferences. “Ask three dentists the same question, and you’re going to get four different answers,” is a common saying in the dental profession.
Normally our dentists in Pembroke Dental don’t support wisdom tooth removal unless there’s an infection, abscess, or other problem. “You have to weigh the surgical risk with what you’re going to try to accomplish,” we say. Like any surgery, wisdom tooth extraction poses a risk, although more serious complications, like fractured jaws are extremely rare. Some possible side effects of wisdom tooth extraction include nerve damage, infection, and dry socket (a painful condition of the extracted tooth socket).We will discuss any risks with you beforehand and make a reasoned risk benefit analysis with you so you are fully informed.
Despite the differing opinions in the dental community, we in Pembroke Dental agree that there’s no prescriptive rule for wisdom tooth removal, and that each patient should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.
THEY’RE CALLED LOVE TEETH IN KOREAN.
In English, the name wisdom tooth conveys the idea that third molars come in later than other teeth, at a time when you’re older and (hopefully) wiser. Other languages don’t follow the same convention. In Korean, for example, the poetic name for third molars translates to “love teeth,” because it’s around this time (late teens and early 20s) that one typically experiences their first love. The Japanese language also has a creative word for it: oyashirazu, or “unknown to parents,” since most people have already moved away from home by the time their wisdom teeth come in.
THEY’RE USED IN STEM CELL RESEARCH.
It turns out wisdom teeth aren’t all bad. Although some of the research is still in the experimental phase, scientists are studying dental stem cells—which were discovered in 2003—to see if they can potentially be used to repair and regenerate tissue.
One study on mice, at the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Medicine, found that stem cells taken from wisdom teeth could someday be used to repair corneas that have been scarred by infection or injury. Any clinical applications for humans would require more research, though.
We have an experienced team of Oral Surgeons on board if you need them
We have three experienced oral surgeons attending Pembroke Dental if you are unlucky enough to require wisdom tooth extractions. Many wisdom tooth extractions are easy and our general dentists will be able to extract the offending tooth simply and easily, but if you require more advanced care, our Oral Surgery team attend Pembroke Dental weekly.