Wisdom teeth are the third molars, the last pair of back teeth used for chewing that are located on each jaw, to give four wisdom teeth. These are the last teeth to emerge in the gums and generally do so between ages 17 and 25 or near the age of attaining majority. This is the reason why these teeth are called wisdom teeth as they appear during the phase of life called the "age of wisdom."
Wisdom teeth through the ages
In early humans, there was a greater need for wisdom teeth due to the excessive wear and tear on the other teeth in the mouth as a result of a rough and fibrous diet comprising unrefined vegetation and coarsely cooked meat. As the permanent teeth that emerged during childhood wore away, there was space left at the ends of backs of the gums for wisdom teeth.
With time, diet has become more refined and less coarse and this, along with the advent of orthodontic treatment has led to less space for wisdom teeth. This results in problems such as impacted or misaligned wisdom teeth that may cause pain or become infected.
Problems with wisdom teeth
If the wisdom teeth do not emerge at the age they are supposed to they may be impacted. A wisdom tooth may be impacted due to a lack of space, or over crowding of the other teeth. In most individuals, impacted wisdom teeth do not lead to any problems. However, some individuals may suffer problems such as gum inflammation, an increased risk of tooth decay (due to difficulty cleaning) and the spread of infection to other teeth.
Wisdom teeth may emerge but may be misaligned or crooked due to a lack of space. This can again cause problems with cleaning and tooth decay or the development of inflammation and abscesses between the gum and the tooth.
Treatment of impacted or problematic wisdom teeth
The main treatment approach for impacted or misaligned wisdom teeth and tooth decay is removal of the tooth. An X -ay of the jaw and teeth helps identify an impacted or misaligned wisdom tooth.
A dentist needs to be consulted if there is severe tooth ache, a swollen face, fever and difficulty in chewing, swallowing or opening the mouth fully. Initially a chlorhexidine mouth wash, a soft-bristled tooth brush and a course of antibiotics may be prescribed. Once the local inflammation has subsided the wisdom tooth is usually removed or extracted.
A wisdom tooth is removed only when it has been infected two or more times and has required antibiotics or if the tooth is decayed, or is causing decay or gum disease in the nearby teeth.
Reviewed by Sally Robertson, BSc