Each year millions of people get their wisdom teeth removed, which costs billions of dollars in total medical costs. But for many it’s worth it, because leaving them in can cause serious problems like gum infection, tooth decay, and even tutors. But wisdom teeth weren’t always the unwelcome threat we see today.
Wisdom teeth have been around for millennia. Our ancient ancestors used them the same way we use our other eight molars: to grind up food, which was especially handy before the advent of cooking. Around 7 thousand years ago back when our diet consisted of raw meat and plants that were fibrous and tough to chew. But once we got our hands on softer cooked foods, our powerful jaws no longer needed to work as hard and shrank as a result.
But here’s the problem: the genes that determine the size of our jaws our completely seperate from the genes that determine how many teeth we grow. So as our jaws shrank we still kept all 32 teeth. And it eventually got the the point where there wasn’t enough space to fit all of the teeth. But why does wisdom teeth specifically get the boot? Well, they’re the last to show up to the party.
Wisdom teeth don’t usually grow out until you’re 16 to 18 years old. And by that time, chances are your other 28 teeth have taken up all the available space in your mouth. In that case, instead of growing in like a normal tooth, wisdom teeth get trapped or impacted in your jaw, which often makes them grow in at odd angles and press against your back molars – causing pain and swelling. It also forms a narrow crevice between the teeth creating the perfect food trap. This makes the tooth difficult to clean which attracts more bacteria and can cause infection and tooth decay, eventually leading to gum disease if left untreated.
But it gets worse..
Tooth decay can eventually destroy your wisdom tooth. So to save you and your teeth from such a horrible fate, dentists will often remove wisdom teeth before they go rogue. Seems reasonable, right? Well, it’s actually a controversial topic among some in the dental community. The worry is we’re removing our wisdom teeth too frequently, often when it’s unnecessary and the teeth pose no threat. Like when your mouth is big enough or you’re one of the 38 percent of people who don’t develop all four wisdom teeth.
In that case, risks from surgery, like infection and nerve damage pose more danger than the teeth themselves. But the fact remains, when wisdom teeth do become a problem, you’ll curse the day we invented cooking.