If you're ever stuck at a party with nothing to talk about, you might mention that you're having your wisdom teeth taken out. The very mention of these teeth can start a war of words, as people duke it out to prove that their oral surgery was indeed the worst experience ever. The details of this rite of passage are ingrained in each person's mind, so you'll hear lots of gory information -- how one girl's face swelled as big as a watermelon, how another girl battled dry sockets, how one fellow had to miss Christmas dinner because the only thing he could eat was Jell-O. Debates will rage about the virtues of going under or staying awake during the surgery, and battle-scarred soldiers will compare how many teeth they had pulled. You can sit back and congratulate yourself for livening up this party.
Wisdom teeth are more formally known to dentists as third molars, while informally, they're known to oral surgeons as cash cows and to those of us who've had them removed, a source of surgical misery. These teeth were named for the time at which they make their appearance at the very back of the mouth, which is usually between the ages of 17 and 25, when a young person might be pursuing wisdom with higher education [source: Cooper].
The third molars have the nasty habit of becoming impacted, or coming in at a funny angle or in an unexpected location. This poor positioning can cause pain and infection, and even if the teeth happen to come in correctly, there could still be trouble ahead. The third molars are difficult to clean, so they could rot and infect nearby teeth; they may also crowd adjacent teeth, undoing years of straight alignments created by braces. For these reasons, dentists usually recommend removing wisdom teeth in young adults, before the teeth have the chance to attach to the jaw and complicate extraction.
Though you may miss a few days of school or work for the surgery, you probably won't miss your wisdom teeth once they're gone, because we don't use them anymore. But if we don't need them, why do these teeth come in at all? Is it possible they may eventually disappear?
- The Evolution of Wisdom Teeth
- Are wisdom teeth becoming obsolete?
The Evolution of Wisdom Teeth
There was a time when our jaws could comfortably accommodate all 32 teeth, including the third molars. You have to go back about 100 million years ago, though, to the prehistoric version of man. Instead of walking upright, this guy got around on all four limbs, with a massive protruding jaw leading the way.
Early man's jaws were larger and more prominent because teeth played a vital role in survival. With the front appendages occupied with balance and running, teeth were prehistoric man's means of catching, dismembering and consuming prey. Our ancestors subsisted on a tough and chewy diet of leaves, roots and raw meat. Having 32 teeth's worth of chewing ability was a huge advantage at this point, especially because early man didn't visit the dentist with the regularity we do today; third molars might have played an important backup role when teeth were lost or worn down.
Then evolution had its way with prehistoric man, and teeth weren't so important anymore. Hominids began walking upright, and arms took on a greater role in obtaining food. After that, brains became larger and jaws became shorter. Researchers still aren't exactly certain which came first, though in 2004, a team from the University of Pennsylvania announced they had discovered a gene called MYH16. Mutations in this gene lead to shorter jaws, which may have been the factor which allowed early man's brain to grow [source: Wilford]. However it happened, the change lessened the amount of space available to teeth in the mouth.
As our heads and jaws were changing, some cultural shifts were taking place as well. Around the same time, man was creating the first tools, including cooking utensils (designed, of course, by primitive prototypes of Food Network hosts). With bigger brains, man got wise to fire and its ability to soften food. Overall, man's diet became much more processed; compared to the roots and raw meat our ancestors ate, we might as well be eating strained applesauce. In fact, we wouldn't necessarily need any teeth at all to survive today, though dining out would be a dull affair. As it is, though, we definitely decreased our reliance upon the third molar.
Opponents of evolution place greater weight on the dietary shift and dental hygiene in lessening our reliance on wisdom teeth, discounting the role of our evolving jaws and brains. But when you line up a prehistoric jaw and a modern jaw, the space is clearly smaller. Can evolution explain the shift? And if our evolutionary history has lessened the need for wisdom teeth and created conditions inhospitable to third molars, will we ever lose them completely?
Are wisdom teeth becoming obsolete?
For many of us, it may seem like our wisdom teeth didn't get the memo that our evolved jaws are lacking space. But some people never develop wisdom teeth; in fact, these teeth don't appear in about 35 percent of the population [source: Spinney]. Are we on an evolutionary track to losing them altogether?
Some experts say it's possible these teeth will eventually disappear [sources: Flam, Usbourne]. Still, there are a few unknowns in the equation. Scientists aren't sure of the role that DNA plays in creating teeth at the third molar position [source: Colf]. Third molars develop entirely after birth, the only teeth to do so. Because these teeth aren't present at birth, it may be harder for nature to select against them [source: LePage]. For wisdom teeth to form, the tissue that starts the process of tooth building has to migrate back in the mouth to interact with the back jaw tissue. If this migration doesn't happen, then no tooth will grow there.
There may also be some environmental factors at work, including disease or head trauma, that stop the tissue migration [source: Silvestri, Singh]. It could also come down to differences in how various cultures use their jaws. For example, in the 1970s, researchers tied the larger jaw that was present in Eskimo women to their tradition of chewing leather to soften it. In parts of East Asia, it's more common to find people with fewer wisdom teeth, if any [source: Vines]. If people of a culture have reached the point where they don't use a trait, they may lose it.
But some scientists are beginning work on stopping the teeth from appearing altogether, so that we might bioengineer these teeth out of existence before evolution does it for us. Because there's a window of time in which there's no third molar, it might be possible to administer a laser or a chemical agent that would prevent the tooth growth. Preliminary studies have shown some success in dogs and rats [source: Silvestri, Singh].
Currently, the lack of wisdom teeth doesn't produce any great evolutionary advantage, particularly with the abundance of oral surgeons who can remove the wisdom teeth that do emerge. That makes it hard to say exactly how the trait might adapt in the future. Certainly, oral surgeons probably have their fingers crossed that these teeth continue to appear for a good long while. The rest of us will have to make do with lots of ice cream and the continuous exchange of surgery stories. Sure, those wisdom tooth lackers may claim they're more highly evolved because they don't have to go through a few days of misery, but what do they talk about at boring parties?
Should They Stay or Should They Go?
Wisdom tooth extraction is expensive, and recovering from the surgery is no easy feat, considering that pain, bleeding, swelling, infection and nerve injury are but a few of the complications. Still, removing wisdom teeth is recommended by many dentists to avoid the pain and periodontal disease that results from an impacted tooth. The surgery should be done during young adulthood, before the teeth attach to the jaw and become too difficult to extract.
In 2007, however, dentist Jay W. Friedman claimed in the American Journal of Public Health that at least two-thirds of wisdom tooth extractions are unnecessary [source: Friedman]. He and some other dentists argue that these teeth will come in at the proper position and cause no trouble. These dentists say that instead of simply doing preventative removals for most young people, we should only remove wisdom teeth that are impacted. Other dentists say that these teeth are still difficult to clean and should be removed.
Originally Published: Aug 11, 2008
Wisdom Teeth FAQ
Why do wisdom teeth need to be removed?
Wisdom teeth usually become impacted or come out at a funny angle or in an unexpected location. Even if they do come out correctly, they can be difficult to clean, rotting and infecting nearby teeth. Sometimes, they also crowd adjacent teeth, affecting alignment. For all these reasons, dentists usually remove them in young adults before they have the chance to attach to the jaw and complicate extraction.
Why are they called wisdom teeth?
Wisdom teeth get their name from the time at which they make their appearance at the very back of the mouth, which is usually between the ages of 17 and 25 when a young person is starting to get wise and knowledgeable.
At what age do you get wisdom teeth?
The third molars usually appear at the back of the mouth between the ages of 17 and 25. And not everyone's wisdom teeth become a source of surgical misery. For some people, wisdom teeth emerge without any problems at all and line up with the other teeth behind the second molars.
How many days off do you need for wisdom teeth?
You might have to miss a day of school or work for the surgery. Usually, recovery from wisdom teeth surgery takes about three days to six days. However, you can eat soft food and go back to your regular routine the day after surgery.
Is it possible to never get wisdom teeth?
Many people never develop wisdom teeth at all. In fact, these teeth don't appear in about 35 percent of the population.
Lots More Information
- How Evolution Works
- How Vestigial Organs Work
- How Forensic Dentistry Works
- How Oral Hygiene Works
- How Tooth Whitening Works
- Why do some people collect shark teeth?
More Great Links
- Bergman, Jerry. "Are wisdom teeth (third molars) vestiges of human evolution?" Creation ex nihilo Technical Journal. December 1998. (July 28, 2008) http://www.answersingenesis.org/tj/v12/i3/wisdomteeth.asp
- Blakeslee, Sandra. "Study Questions Routine Molar Removal." New York Times. June 26, 1991. (July 28, 2008) http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9D0CE5DD1539F935A15755C0A967958260&scp=38&sq=%22wisdom+teeth%22&st=nyt
- Colf, Leremy. "Ask a Geneticist." Understanding Genetics. June 8, 2007. (July 28, 2008) http://www.thetech.org/genetics/ask.php?id=223
- Cooper, Rachele. "Why Do We Have Wisdom Teeth?" Scienceline. Feb. 5, 2007. (July 28, 2008) http://scienceline.org/2007/02/05/ask-cooper-wisdomteeth/
- Flam, Faye. "Mankind not done evolving yet." Philadelphia Inquirer. April 24, 2008.
- Friedman, Jay W. "The Prophylactic Extraction of Third Molars: A Public Health Hazard." Health Policy and Ethics. September 2007.
- LePage, Michael. "Evolution myths: Everything is an adaptation." New Scientist. April 16, 2008. (July 28, 2008) http://www.newscientist.com/channel/life/dn13615-evolution-myths-everything-is-an-adaptation.html
- Silvestri, Anthony R. Jr. and Iqbal Singh. "The unresolved problem of the third molar: Would people be better off without it?" Journal of the American Dental Association. 2003. (July 28, 2008) http://jada.ada.org/cgi/reprint/134/4/450
- Spinney, Laura. "Remnants of Evolution." New Scientist. May 17, 2008.
- Usborne, Simon. "Meet the Ancestors: Lucy is Going on Display Outside Africa for the First Time." Red Orbit. Aug. 1, 2007. (July 28, 2008) http://www.redorbit.com/news/science/1019044/meet_the_ancestors_lucy_is_going_on_display_outside_africa/index.html
- Vines, Gail. "A waste of space." New Scientist. April 25, 1998. (July 28, 2008) http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg15821315.200-a-waste-of-space.html
- Wielawski, Irene M. "To Pull or Not to Pull? Wisdom Teeth in Trouble." New York Times. April 26, 2005. (July 28, 2008) http://www.nytimes.com/2005/04/26/health/26teet.html?scp=1&sq=%22wisdom+teeth%22&st=nyt
- Wilford, John Noble. "Less Jaw, Big Brain: Evolution Milestone Laid to Gene Flaw." New York Times. March 25, 2004. (July 28, 2008) http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9C04E7D81530F936A15750C0A9629C8B63&sec=&spon=&pagewanted=all
Are you more evolved if you don't have wisdom teeth? ›
Preliminary studies have shown some success in dogs and rats [source: Silvestri, Singh]. Currently, the lack of wisdom teeth doesn't produce any great evolutionary advantage, particularly with the abundance of oral surgeons who can remove the wisdom teeth that do emerge.Does rapid evolution mean humans now being born without wisdom teeth? ›
'Rapid' evolution means more babies being born without wisdom teeth and extra artery. Babies are being born without wisdom teeth as humans are evolving at a rapid rate, a study has found.Are wisdom teeth an evolutionary trait? ›
Our Early Ancestors Needed Wisdom Teeth
Because early humans needed to chew coarse, hearty foods, they required a broader jaw. Wisdom teeth grew in to give them more chewing power for this purpose. Because the jaw was wider, the wisdom teeth were able to grow in with no difficulties.
Humans today display smaller teeth and smaller jaws when compared to people who lived 25,000 years ago. The canine teeth of some people living long ago were much larger than current human teeth. Molars also differed in size depending on the era of the teeth and the geographic location.Why experts now say not to remove your wisdom teeth? ›
That exposes the underlying bone and nerves and results in severe pain. More serious risks, which become more common with age, include nerve and blood-vessel damage. As with any surgery, wisdom-tooth removal does carry the very rare risk of death.What races don t have wisdom teeth? ›
This might become a point of jealousy at some point, but wisdom tooth development is a genetic matter and not everyone carries the genes for them. For instance, indigenous Mexican peoples have a 100% rate of not having wisdom teeth, while almost all European or African peoples develop wisdom teeth.What are the benefits of keeping your wisdom teeth? ›
In fact, where they are not negatively impacting oral and/or overall health, it is best to keep wisdom teeth intact. Properly erupted wisdom teeth provide support in the back of the mouth and help maintain bone in the jaw. This support is beneficial to the health of the temporo mandibular joint (TMJ).Does removing wisdom teeth affect brain? ›
Tooth loss has long term changes in the brain. In rats that had their molar teeth extracted, there were sustained neuroplastic changes that lasted one to two months . Specifically, this study examines general physical brain changes, specifically, white brain matter changes and Parkinson disease patients.How rare is it to be born without wisdom teeth? ›
About 20-25% of the human population is born with 1 to 3 wisdom teeth, and 35% is born without any wisdom teeth at all. Why do some people have wisdom teeth and some don't?Why don t humans need wisdom teeth? ›
Wisdom Teeth Have Ancient Roots
Early humans needed extra molars and large jaws to chew tough plants, roots, and raw meat. Since modern humans eat soft foods and cooked meat, we don't need wisdom teeth anymore. However, our genes still produce wisdom teeth that no longer have room to grow.
Why do some people never get wisdom teeth? ›
There are two main reasons why some individuals have no wisdom teeth: They are present but still haven't erupted yet. Wisdom teeth may never erupt if they are impacted (not enough space for them to grow) and may remain dormant in the jawbone for many years. The lack of wisdom teeth is related to genes.How did people deal with wisdom teeth before dentists? ›
Prior to the introduction of Novocaine in 1902, wisdom teeth were probably rarely, if ever, removed as a preventive measure. Patients who experienced problems or infection with their wisdom teeth either had to live with the pain or endure the agonizing procedure of getting them dug out without sedation and anesthesia.Do Mexicans have wisdom teeth? ›
Did you know that not everyone develops wisdom teeth? In fact, the incidence of wisdom teeth in those with Tasmanian Aboriginal ancestry is practically zero. By contrast, nearly 100% of indigenous Mexicans have wisdom teeth.Do Native Americans get wisdom teeth? ›
There's a gene called PAX9 that helps determine whether or not people will get wisdom teeth. These genetic differences make some groups less likely to have wisdom teeth. One group less likely to get wisdom teeth, for instance, is those with indigenous Mexican ancestry.What percent of the population has their wisdom teeth removed? ›
When Do Wisdom Teeth Need to be Extracted? It is true that not everyone needs to have their wisdom teeth removed, but about 85 percent of the population does.Which race has the best teeth? ›
Here is the list of countries whose populations have the healthiest teeth in the world learn more about why that is; Denmark: In the top spot, with an impressive DMFT Score of 0.4 At the very pinnacle of the list have Denmark. The data indicates Denmark has the best oral health of all the countries in the entire world.What percentage of Americans don't have wisdom teeth? ›
According to the Dental Research Journal , it's estimated that anywhere from 5 to 37 percent of people are missing one or more of their third molars. The reason is unknown, but lack of these teeth could involve genetics. So if one of your parents doesn't have wisdom teeth, you may not have them either.How many Americans don't have wisdom teeth? ›
35% of American don't grow any wisdom teeth, they are the lucky ones! Wisdom teeth removal is common for the rest of us. These “third molars” can pose a bit of a problem and usually appear between ages 16 and 25.What is the disadvantage of removing wisdom teeth? ›
Nerves and blood vessels can be damaged during the procedure. This can cause bleeding and usually temporary numbness in the tongue or face. In very rare cases serious infections may occur. Up to 1 out of 100 people may have permanent problems as a result of the procedure, such as numbness or damage to nearby teeth.Can removing wisdom teeth improve health? ›
Having your wisdom teeth removed can offer many benefits, including: Preventing infection or decay. Preventing damage to other teeth. Alleviating or lessening pain in your face and mouth.
Does wisdom teeth removal affect jawline? ›
In short, removing the wisdom teeth will not impact your jawbone or face shape. In addition, the skin and soft tissue around the wisdom teeth consist of the underlying fat, muscles, and fat pads in the face. These tissues are not affected when a wisdom tooth is removed.What are the long term effects of not removing wisdom teeth? ›
In fact, they often cause more problems because they are at risk for impaction, a condition in which the tooth is partially or fully trapped beneath the gums, other teeth, or both. Impaction increases the risks of bacterial infections, tooth decay, gum disease, and other harmful health conditions.How long does it take to regain consciousness after wisdom teeth removal? ›
It takes an average of 45 minutes to regain consciousness, though it could take longer depending on additional medication that a dentist uses during the procedure. The full effects of a general anesthetic wear off in 12 to 24 hours.
While it can often be imperative that you have your wisdom teeth taken out, especially if they're causing pain or other forms of discomfort, it can be a major source of stress and anxiety for individuals, no matter what age they are.What is the evolutionary reason for wisdom teeth? ›
When a typical diet consisted of chewy plants and uncooked meat, third molars (wisdom teeth), which fit easily into our ancestors' larger jaws, were absolutely necessary. Wisdom teeth were the evolutionary answer to the need for chewing power to combat excessive wear.Did Neanderthals have wisdom teeth? ›
The Paleolithic Human
So let's start from the beginning: the neanderthal human being. This historic human would often use his or her wisdom teeth to chomp down on particularly tough and gritty foods that your average, modern day human would not choose to eat.
Can wisdom teeth really emerge in your 40s? Yes they can. We have had a number of patients at our Houston dental office have their wisdom tooth erupt even into their late 40s. If this is a concern that is currently happening inside your mouth then it's a good idea to see a dental professional as soon as possible.How did ancient people remove wisdom teeth? ›
Roman extraction techniques involved gripping the teeth with a pair of pliers and work it free, probably tearing the periodontal ligaments. If necessary, the gums and bones were cut to help the tooth come out.What is the oldest age you can get wisdom teeth? ›
Wisdom teeth or third molars (M3s) are the last, most posteriorly placed permanent teeth to erupt. They usually erupt into the mouth between 17 and 25 years of age. They can, however, erupt many years later.Why do Asians not have wisdom teeth? ›
It is a common issue especially among Asians as Asians tend to have smaller jaws which may pose a problem in accommodating the 3rd molar or more commonly known as the wisdom tooth.
How did not having wisdom teeth evolve? ›
A random gene mutation that occurred nearly 400,000 years ago is responsible for missing wisdom teeth. This mutation suppressed wisdom tooth formation in a certain few individuals – a trait that's seen in many people today.Why don t dentists put you to sleep? ›
They may not recommend putting you to sleep if you're allergic to the ingredients in medications or at a high risk of showing adverse reactions. This is also why a thorough assessment is crucial before undergoing any dental procedure.Were wisdom teeth a problem in the past? ›
Although wisdom teeth were incredibly advantageous for our ancestors, they pose a bit of a problem for the modern mouth. Humans have evolved to have smaller jaws, and so wisdom teeth are often either too big for the jaw or the jaws themselves are just too small.What did wisdom teeth used to be called? ›
Wisdom teeth, the molars located the farthest back in the jaw, are formally known as third molars; but their nickname is much more commonly used.Why do so many Americans get their wisdom teeth out? ›
Even if the extra teeth aren't causing pain, many oral surgeons still suggest wisdom teeth removal as a preventative measure to fend off tooth or jaw damage down the line. Today, the procedure is routine and there are very few issues or complications associated with wisdom teeth removal.What percent of Asians don't have wisdom teeth? ›
Ten to 25 percent of Americans with European ancestry, 11 percent of those with African ancestry, and 40 percent of those with Asian ancestry are missing one or more wisdom teeth.Does everyone in the world get their wisdom teeth out? ›
This third set of molars usually grows in during a person's late teens or early 20s. And there's long been an assumption that all people should get these late-blooming teeth removed lest they pose problems for the individual down the road. Actually, though, some people don't need their wisdom teeth removed.What ethnicity has big teeth? ›
Tooth size has been shown to have a strong association with both sex and ethnicity. Males have consistently larger teeth than females, whereas people of African descent have larger mesiodistal tooth dimensions than those of European descent.Do Asians get wisdom teeth? ›
Scientists also attribute the variation of the number of wisdom teeth to lineage and genetics. For example, Asian Americans and African Americans are more likely to have less than four wisdom teeth than individuals of European descent. Your dentist will analyze an X-ray to determine if you have wisdom teeth.Is it rare to have all 4 wisdom teeth? ›
The average person has four wisdom teeth, which are the last teeth to erupt in the mouth. However, it is not uncommon for people to have fewer or more than four wisdom teeth.
How rare are people without wisdom teeth? ›
About 20-25% of the human population is born with 1 to 3 wisdom teeth, and 35% is born without any wisdom teeth at all. Why do some people have wisdom teeth and some don't?Do wisdom teeth have a purpose? ›
In fact, most healthcare providers consider them vestigial. This means they served a purpose at one point, but don't anymore. Our ancestors' primitive diet consisted of a lot of raw plants, hard nuts and tough meats — and wisdom teeth were necessary to grind these foods for proper digestion.Do Chinese have wisdom teeth? ›
And strangely enough, Asians do not have wisdom teeth to contend with. That said, it works this way, folks on the possibility that evolvement does, in fact, have something to do with that conundrum and here's why! There is an "overlap" between the jaw size and brain size.What is negative about removing wisdom teeth? ›
Nerves and blood vessels can be damaged during the procedure. This can cause bleeding and usually temporary numbness in the tongue or face. In very rare cases serious infections may occur. Up to 1 out of 100 people may have permanent problems as a result of the procedure, such as numbness or damage to nearby teeth.Is it good that I dont have wisdom teeth? ›
A dental X-ray can reveal whether you have third molars. Not having any wisdom teeth might come as a surprise, and you might think there's something wrong with your oral health. But the reality is, it's perfectly okay not to have these molars.