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Some Wisdom on Teeth

Some Wisdom on Teeth

Some Wisdom on Teeth

 by Bill Kuttler, DDS

May has me thinking about proms and graduations–rites of passage for teens becoming young adults.  It also leads me to reflect about the dental rites of passage, although most of you probably don’t think about those as often as I do!  Young parents eagerly watch for the eruption of the first tooth of their child and then about five or six years later, the loss of the first baby tooth and the arrival of the first permanent or “adult” tooth.  About ten years after that (plus or minus a few), the next dental benchmark is about wisdom teeth beginning to arrive.  It’s likely that arrival isn’t at first apparent to the person in whose mouth they are developing since they probably have not yet started appearing above the gums.  However, they have often developed far enough that a dentist can see a potential for problems.   

Perhaps the most common question I get asked about “wisdom teeth” is “Why are they called that?”  The best answer I’ve seen is related to the time of their arrival.  Since these molars arrive so much later than the other teeth, people assumed that their arrival marked the age when the person was “wiser”.  While I suspect many of us could debate that–in my case, at least, with the “wisdom” (pun intended) of hindsight–that does seem to be the reason for the nickname for what we dentists often call third molars.

Another common question I’m asked is “Why do we have them?”  Centuries ago human’s mouths were bigger and their diets were more challenging, and the extra molars helped grind up their food.  As humans have developed over the centuries, our mouths have gotten smaller and our diets softer.  Thus we don’t really need the wisdom teeth, and there is usually not enough room for them in our mouths.  While some people are born without some or all of them, most people do have them all.  The result is that most people need their wisdom teeth removed to prevent problems.  Those future problems may include gum infections around partially erupted teeth, possible pressure on the other teeth causing crowded teeth, and cyst formation around un-erupted (or “impacted”) wisdom teeth which can cause damage to other teeth and/or bone.  So if they need to be removed as they usually do, the question becomes “When is the best time?”

It’s all about the timing!  I believe the best time to remove wisdom teeth is before they have begun to erupt.  So how soon before they erupt?  The best time is a factor of combining how close the teeth are to erupting and how far developed their root structure is.  For many youngsters today, that age is far younger than years ago simply because most teens are physically maturing earlier.  While we used to think that graduation from high school was a good indicator, now we often see teenagers at about the age of 15 where the timing is right (and sometimes even earlier).  So you need your dentist’s input on this—for the best outcome, the timing really is important!

Once the appropriate age is determined for any given teenager, then it becomes a question of the right timing during the year for the teenager and the rest of the family.  For many, the ideal time to have wisdom teeth removed is during the summer months.  Schedules are less crammed full of school activities, and the teenagers are a bit less concerned if they need to lay low for a couple days in the early post-operative stage of healing.

If summer is the right time for you, the planning should start with a discussion with your family dentist.  If your child doesn’t have a preventive visit scheduled in the next few weeks, a call to your dentist would be in order.  Simply ask your dentist to review your child’s x-rays to determine how the development and eruption of the wisdom teeth is progressing.  She or he may need to schedule a visit to take an x-ray film (often what is called a panoramic film) to have a current view of your child’s development.  That information is invaluable in determining if this summer is the right time to take action.

So, even though summer is fast approaching, spend a little time planning–it will help make your lives better and easier!  That’s just plain old wisdom!