A wisdom tooth, in humans, is any of the usually four third molars. Wisdom teeth usually appear between the ages of 16 and 25. Most adults have four wisdom teeth, but it is possible to have more, in which case they are called supernumerary teeth. Wisdom teeth commonly affect other teeth as they develop, becoming impacted or "coming in sideways." They are often extracted when this occurs. About 35% of the population do not develop wisdom teeth at all.
Wisdom teeth present potential problems when they are misaligned - they can 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. Wisdom teeth that lean toward the second molars make those teeth more vulnerable to decay by entrapping plaque and debris. In addition, wisdom teeth can be entrapped completely within the soft tissue and/or the jawbone or only partially break through or erupt through the gum. Teeth that remain partially or completely entrapped within the soft tissue and /or the jawbone are termed "impacted." Wisdom teeth that only partially erupt allows for an opening for bacteria to enter around the tooth and 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.
Wisdom teeth are extracted for two general reasons: either the wisdom teeth have already become impacted, or the wisdom teeth could potentially become problematic if not extracted. Potential problems caused by the presence of properly grown-in wisdom teeth include infections caused by food particles easily trapped in the jaw area behind the wisdom teeth where regular brushing and flossing is difficult and ineffective. Such infections may be frequent, and cause considerable pain and medical danger. Other reasons wisdom teeth are removed include misalignment which rubs up against the tongue or cheek causing pain, potential crowding or malocclusion of the remaining teeth (a result of there being not enough room on the jaw or in the mouth), as well as orthodontics.
How Are Wisdom Teeth Removed?
The relative ease at which your dentist or oral surgeon can extract your wisdom teeth depends on their position. 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. Oftentimes, 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.