The Surprising Truth About Wisdom Teeth
One of the most colorful terms in dentistry is "wisdom teeth," referring to the third molars that usually erupt between the ages of 17 to 25. It's easy to guess how the term came about; these teeth come in around the same time that people are finishing school and entering the world as adults, demonstrating at least a little bit of wisdom. For some people, wisdom teeth are nothing but trouble, while others have them come in without difficulty, and others seem to lack them entirely. So, when it comes to wisdom teeth, what exactly is normal?
Most people have four wisdom teeth, one in each quadrant of the mouth. Since these teeth are typically the last to come in, when they do, there's often too little space in the mouth for them to fit neatly. So, when these wisdom teeth do erupt, they usually come in crooked and put pressure on the teeth around them. Wisdom teeth that come in improperly in this way are referred to as impacted. Impacted wisdom teeth can cause severe pain, as well as damage other teeth around them.
When wisdom teeth become impacted, they must be carefully monitored and often need removal entirely. In fact, over 10 million wisdom teeth are extracted each year in the U.S., making it one of the most common dental procedures. Most people heal quickly from this extraction and can return to work within two or three days. Removing your wisdom teeth should not cause any long-term pain or complications.
Other people get lucky and have their wisdom teeth come in with no crowding or other difficulties. While there are typically four third molars, some people only have one, two, or three of them erupt. A smaller group may have even more teeth, called supernumerary teeth, which may cause difficulty.
Surprisingly, up to a third of all people have no wisdom teeth at all! If you're one of those third, you can rest easy. Lacking wisdom teeth has no ill effects on your health or chewing ability. In fact, some scientists suggest that it may be a sign that you're more highly evolved.
That's because experts say the lack of wisdom teeth is due to an evolutionary adaptation that occurs in some people. In the past, when human beings were primarily hunter-gatherers, they needed extra molars to help them grind and chew tough foods. At the time, the average jaw was wider, leaving more room for the teeth to come in without being impacted, and most people's wisdom teeth came in without difficulty.
Now, the average human jaw is much narrower, making it harder for wisdom teeth to fit in. This feature coincides with the development of the modern diet, with its softer, easier-to-digest foods. People no longer need extra molars to chew their meals, and since they can cause serious problems, the forces of natural selection may be reducing the total number of people born with wisdom teeth. Therefore, in a sense, wisdom teeth are a holdover from the past, and those who lack them are a product of human evolution.
Fortunately, human beings have also developed modern dentistry to go along with the modern diet. While impacted third molars would have been dangerous to humans thousands of years ago, that's no longer necessarily the case. Now that removing third molars is a safe, standard procedure, there's no need to deal with pain from them. If you're having trouble with your wisdom teeth, your dentist can help. If you don't have any third molars, don't worry: you don't need them.