A Look at the Purpose of Wisdom Teeth and Causes for Wisdom Teeth Removal
Wisdom teeth are our third and final set of molars to grow. They don’t quite fit in many people’s mouths and can become problematic, leading to getting them extracted. For others, they come in just fine, and some don’t have them at all.
Since we don’t really need our wisdom teeth, many people ask why we even have them. So to help answer that question, here’s a look at the purpose of wisdom teeth and when you should have them removed.
Function and Purpose of Wisdom Teeth
Wisdom teeth are a set of molars in the back of the mouth. And molars are used to grind down food. Our sharper front teeth are used to tear food into smaller pieces, while our molars further chew and break down food so it is easy to swallow and digest.
Our early ancestors needed wisdom teeth and larger jaws to help chew coarse, rough foods since their diet consisted of raw food that was more difficult to chew and caused excessive wear of the teeth, such as roots, berries, leaves, nuts, and meat.
Why We Don’t Need Wisdom Teeth Today
Thanks to the availability of foods, cooking, utensils, and modern-day food preparation, we no longer need our wisdom teeth to eat.
We don’t have to forage for raw food since we can buy almost any type of food at grocery stores and restaurants. We also cook our food to soften it. And we use utensils to cut and crush our food into small, easy-to-chew pieces. So long gone are the days when humans had to gnaw on a root for dinner.
Evolution and this lack of necessity for wisdom teeth are why some people never get them, and also why it’s okay to have them removed if they are causing or have the potential to cause oral health problems.
When Is Removal Needed?
The human jaw has become smaller with evolution. And smaller jaws mean that we no longer have enough space in our mouths for wisdom teeth to grow in properly.
While our jaws stop growing around the age of 18, our wisdom teeth don’t usually come in until after 18, so there is little or no space left when these teeth try to erupt. And when wisdom teeth do not fully erupt, they become impacted because there is no room to come in, and they are blocked by neighboring teeth. If your wisdom teeth are not coming in correctly, you will likely need them removed.
You should visit your dentist and consider wisdom teeth extraction if you experience any of the following symptoms, especially around your wisdom teeth and the area behind your last molar:
- Gum disease
- Tooth decay
- Damage to nearby teeth
- Red or swollen gums
- Tender or bleeding gums
- Jaw pain
- Swelling around the jaw
- Bad breath
- An unpleasant taste in your mouth
- Difficulty opening your mouth
Wisdom teeth removal is necessary as a preventative measure if wisdom teeth:
- Remain hidden below the gums—are trapped (impacted) within the jaw and cannot erupt normally.
- Partially erupt through the gums—creating a hard-to-clean area filled with bacteria and at risk of infection and gum disease.
- Crowd neighboring teeth—which can cause damage to other teeth, tooth decay, and tooth misalignment.
As a result of not having enough space to grow in properly, wisdom teeth can cause many oral health problems, such as:
- Crowded teeth
- Crooked teeth
- Wisdom teeth growing in sideways
- Increased tooth decay (cavities) from swollen gums and crowded teeth that are difficult to clean
- Jaw pain
- Sinus pain, pressure, and congestion
- Inflamed gums that are painful, swollen, and difficult to clean
- Cysts can form under the gums around the wisdom teeth, potentially hollowing out the jaw bone and damaging nerves
- Possible tumors can also grow in the cysts which can lead to a broken jaw if they become too big
To avoid these severe and painful oral health problems before they have a chance to start, regular dental checkups and cleanings are recommended.
Dentists can monitor the growth of wisdom teeth with dental X-rays and recommend wisdom teeth extraction if these teeth are likely to cause oral health problems in the future.
Teenagers are usually evaluated for wisdom teeth removal during visits to the dentist. Even if their wisdom teeth are not causing immediate problems, wisdom tooth extraction can prevent future problems. And young people tend to heal faster from wisdom teeth extraction before the roots and bone have fully developed.
Why Are They Called “Wisdom” Teeth?
This third set of molars is the last set of teeth that we get. And since we are adults when they grow in—between the ages of 17 and 25—and at an age when people are said to become wiser than when they were children (when their earlier sets of molars grew in), these teeth have the nickname of “wisdom” teeth.
Wisdom teeth are no longer necessary for human survival in our modern-day. But they can cause serious oral health problems if left in the mouth.
So visit your dentist for a wisdom teeth evaluation to prevent future problems and pain. And remember that if you need to have your wisdom teeth removed, you probably won’t miss them.