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Why do we get our wisdom teeth removed?

By – Bad Breath Expert
Posted: June 29, 2015, Updated: April 6, 2016
SUMMARY: Why, from a dental standpoint, do we get rid of wisdom teeth? And more confounding, why do we have them in the first place if they aren't functional?

Most of us are familiar with wisdom teeth removal. According to Everyday Health, 95 percent of 18-year-old adults in the U.S. have extra molars. These teeth, also known as the third molars, come in long after the rest of your permanent teeth develop and can cause pain and misalign your jaw. But why, from a dental standpoint, do we get rid of them? More confounding, why do we have them in the first place if they aren't functional? Let's explore the molars:

Hunter-gatherer to modern man
Though archeologists and anthropologists aren't 100 percent certain why we have wisdom teeth, many speculate that they did once serve an evolutionary function. Our ancient ancestors were most commonly hunter-gatherers, meaning they roamed the land in search of food. Much of the edible material they found was difficult to chew. From tough roots to chewy meat, everything they ate was rough. As such, molars wore down quickly, and having a third row meant you were able to process your meal even when other molars couldn't cut it.

However, over time, humankind shifted to a more agrarian lifestyle, finding most of their food through farming. This shifted the average person's diet toward softer foods that didn't require these additional molars, and thus we stopped needing our wisdom teeth. Eating softer foods also allowed our jaws to shrink since we didn't need strong muscles and bones just to eat anymore. As such, wisdom teeth stopped fitting in our newly tiny mouths.

Fast forward to modern times, when our small mouths still grow teeth they neither need nor have room for. For most people, wisdom teeth come in crooked and can be painful.

Where the name comes from
Wisdom teeth are the last permanent teeth we get, coming in later than other molars. In fact, most people don't see evidence of their wisdom teeth until they're between the ages of 17 and 25. Mentally speaking, human brains don't fully develop until our mid to late 20s - in some cases, not even until the 30s! Because the third molars begin to surface during adulthood, we associate them with wisdom and becoming mentally developed, hence the moniker. 

Why we remove them
As stated, wisdom teeth tend to grow crooked in the back of the mouth. For some, overcrowding can cause these teeth to be impacted, meaning they grow sideways instead of vertically. In other cases, wisdom teeth only poke through part of the gums covering them. Both instances are bad for oral health. 

Partially erupted teeth: When your wisdom teeth poke out of the gums, but aren't totally emerged, food can slip into the gum and attract bacteria. Those particles can then contribute to the decaying of your wisdom teeth. In the worst-case scenario, trapped foods could eventually cause gum infections.

Impacted: When wisdom teeth are impacted, they grow in sideways, often pushing against other teeth. This can alter the bite of your mouth or cause pain, or both. 

Most dentists suggest removing wisdom teeth before they take root. They're easier to remove that way and cause less pain. Some adults, however, experience no ill effects of wisdom teeth. In these cases, the teeth erupt completely from the gums and grow in straight. This isn't very common, and most people will have to have surgery to remove these additional teeth.

Say goodbye to wisdom teeth
If you notice any of these symptoms, consult your dentist:

  • Pain near wisdom teeth.
  • Partially surfaced wisdom teeth.
  • Infections near the molars.
  • Tumors.
  • Cysts.
  • Gum disease.
  • Tooth decay.

If the issues are caused by incoming wisdom teeth, your dentist will likely recommend removal. If you've had wisdom teeth for awhile with no ill effects, monitor them closely. Note any changes and share them with your dentist.

Wisdom teeth may no longer be necessary from an evolutionary standpoint, but they can still impact your oral health.

* These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. Please Note: The material on this site is provided for informational purposes only.  Always consult your health care professional before beginning any new therapy.