Wisdom teeth are the third and final set of molars that most people get in their late teens or early twenties. Sometimes these teeth can be a valuable asset to the mouth when healthy and properly aligned, but more often they are misaligned and require removal.
When wisdom teeth are misaligned, they may position themselves horizontally, be angled toward or away from the second molars, or be angled inward or outward. Poor alignment of wisdom teeth can crowd or damage adjacent teeth, the jawbone, or nerves.
Anatomy of the Teeth
The teeth are the hardest substances in the human body. Besides being essential for chewing, the teeth play an important role in speech. Parts of the teeth include:
- Enamel: The hardest, white outer part of the tooth. Enamel is mostly made of calcium phosphate, a rock-hard mineral.
- Dentin: A layer underlying the enamel. Dentin is made of living cells, which secrete a hard mineral substance.
- Pulp: The softer, living inner structure of teeth. Blood vessels and nerves run through the pulp of the teeth.
Wisdom teeth also can be impacted — they are enclosed within the soft tissue and/or the jawbone, or only partially break through or “erupt” through the gum. Partial eruption of the wisdom teeth allows an opening for bacteria to enter around the tooth and can cause an infection, which results in pain, swelling, jaw stiffness, and general illness. Partially erupted teeth are also more prone to tooth decay and gum disease because their hard-to-reach location and awkward positioning makes brushing and flossing difficult.
How Do I Know if I Have Wisdom Teeth?
Ask your dentist about your wisdom teeth. Your dentist will take an X-ray to evaluate for the presence and alignment of your wisdom teeth. Your dentist may also decide to send you to an oral surgeon for further evaluation.
Your dentist or oral surgeon may recommend that your wisdom teeth be extracted even before problems develop. This is done to avoid a more painful or more complicated extraction that might have to be done a few years later. Removal is easier in young people, when the wisdom teeth roots are not yet fully developed and the bone is less dense. In older people, recovery and healing time tend to be longer.
How Are Wisdom Teeth Removed?
The relative ease at which your dentist or oral surgeon can extract your wisdom teeth depends on their position and stage of development. Your oral health care provider will be able to give you an idea of what to expect during your pre-extraction exam. A wisdom tooth that is fully erupted through the gum can be extracted as easily as any other tooth. However, a wisdom tooth that is underneath the gums and embedded in the jawbone will require an incision into the gums and then removal of the portion of bone that lies over the tooth. Often, for a tooth in this situation, the tooth will be extracted in small sections rather than removed in one piece to minimize the amount of bone that needs to be removed to get the tooth out.
What Happens During Wisdom Teeth Removal?
Before your wisdom teeth are removed, the teeth and the surrounding tissue will be numbed with a local anesthetic — the same type used to numb a tooth prior to having a cavity filled. In addition to the local anesthetic to numb the pain, you and your dentist or oral surgeon may decide tp administer a sedative to manage any anxiety. Sedating medications that could be selected include: nitrous oxide (otherwise known as “laughing gas”), an oral sedative (for example, Valium), or an intravenous sedative (administered via an injection into your veins). If nitrous oxide is given, you will be able to drive yourself home. If any of the other medications is selected, you will need someone to drive you both to and from the appointment.