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.
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.
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.
No reliable studies exist to support removal of trouble-free impacted wisdom teeth, according to a systematic review of evidence. Despite this surprising lack of data, extraction of third molars has long been considered appropriate care in most developed countries.
"Watchful monitoring" of asymptomatic wisdom teeth may be a more appropriate strategy, suggest review authors led by Dr. Dirk Mettes of Radboud University Medical Centre Nijmegen in the Netherlands. Furthermore, they add, health risks and cost-effectiveness of surgery deserve greater consideration.
"Prudent decision-making, with adherence to specified indicators for removal, may reduce the number of surgical procedures by 60 percent or more," the authors say.
The review appears in the most recent issue of The Cochrane Library, a publication of The Cochrane Collaboration, an international organization that evaluates medical research. Systematic reviews draw evidence-based conclusions about medical practice after considering both the content and quality of existing medical trials on a topic.