Your Third Molars: Why Are They Called Wisdom Teeth?

November 17, 2022

Filed under: Wisdom Teeth — Tags: , , , — Dr. Steve Koo @ 4:47 am
X-ray showing wisdom tooth that should be removed by oral surgeon in Houston

If you have ever experienced pain from the so-called wisdom teeth, you are probably wondering how they earned that name. They sure don’t feel all that wise. And why do humans develop wisdom teeth if they just need to be removed, anyway? Your oral surgeon in Houston is here to explain everything you ever wanted to know about wisdom teeth.

What Are Wisdom Teeth?

Wisdom teeth are the set of third molars that appear during adolescence or early adulthood. Just like the appendix, they are considered vestigial. That is to say, they are not necessary for proper functioning of the human body. In fact, some people never develop them. (Others only get one or two wisdom teeth. Rarely, an individual will get more than four.)

More often than not, wisdom teeth cause problems that require them to be extracted. Common issues associated with wisdom teeth include infection, impaction, tooth crowding, and pain. Problematic wisdom teeth occur so frequently that wisdom teeth extraction in Houston has become a routine procedure. In fact, it’s one of the most common oral surgeries performed today, with approximately 10 million wisdom teeth extracted annually in the United States.

Why Do We Have These Third Molars?

Wisdom teeth are unnecessary for modern living. However, they may have been invaluable to ancient human ancestors. The most popular theory about why they exist states that their development is a holdover from eons ago, when humans had to chew harder, tougher foods — like raw meat and tough roots. Back then, had humans to have stronger teeth, and were more prone to losing them, too. That means there was always the need for third molars. But now, with improved dental care and a diet that has (thankfully) evolved to include softer, easier to eat foods, wisdom teeth are no longer a necessity.

Additionally, the mouths of ancient humans tended to be larger than those of modern people. Therefore, they always had space in their mouth for their third molars. That is often not the case with people today.

But… Why Are They Called Wisdom Teeth?

It’s a good question. There’s nothing so wise about these often painful third molars. Wisdom teeth earned their title because they usually appear between ages 17 and 21, or the time when people used to think wisdom was gained. (New theories on emerging adulthood between ages 18 to 29 may call for a renaming, however.) At the very least, people tend to be older and “wiser” when they get their wisdom teeth than they were when their other permanent teeth erupted.

In Spanish, these teeth are known as las muelas del juicio, or the “teeth of judgement.” It’s the same idea, but with a slight difference — and anyone who’s known (or been) an 18-year-old may argue with the sentiment! But whether you call them wisdom teeth, third molars, or judgement teeth, the truth is that these late bloomers usually need to be extracted if they appear.

Why Wisdom Teeth Cause Problems

The third molars cause issues when there is not enough room for them to fully emerge. Wisdom teeth may come in crooked, or they may erupt only partially. That leads to crowding of the rest of the teeth, a painful side effect that may call for orthodontic treatment later on. And when teeth erupt partially, sideways, or don’t ever actually emerge from beneath the gum at all, it’s easy for food particles and bacteria to collect underneath the gum flap. That quickly leads to infection — and the classic wisdom tooth pain that sends you straight to the dentist’s office.

Is Wisdom Tooth Removal Always “Wise”?

Of course, not everyone has to get their wisdom teeth removed. Some people can retain their third molars for a lifetime and never experience any ill effects because of them. Other people choose to get them removed as a purely precautionary measure, in which case patients have to carefully weigh the risks of surgery (which are minimal) against the risks of keeping teeth that could lead to significant problems down the road.

Wisdom tooth removal is only truly necessary if the teeth are already causing problems, or if a well-qualified professional foresees that they will do so in the future.

After you consult with a skilled oral surgeon, you can make a well-informed decision as to whether you should undergo the extraction procedure. In the meantime, your general dentist can help you monitor the health of these unique parts of your smile.

The wisdom teeth are a fascinating part of human oral anatomy. However, they are not always welcome. An oral surgeon can help you decide whether it is “wise” to keep them in your mouth or if you should say goodbye to them forever.

Meet the Practice

Drs. Steve Koo, Thomas Weil, and William Shepard are proud to provide a broad range of oral surgery services to the Houston community, including comfortable wisdom tooth removal. To learn more about our practice and how we may be able to serve you, contact us at 713-783-5560.

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