Often depicted as a right of passage into adulthood, wisdom teeth are typically the last adult teeth to emerge. Often an uncomfortable experience, wisdom teeth are the subject of much discussion and concern, particularly for folks with dental anxiety. Most of the time, however, wisdom teeth can be dealt with relatively easily with minimal discomfort to the patient–a few days of swelling, soreness, and painkillers, and then life returns to normal.
Impacted wisdom teeth can be a different matter, however. They may require more involved treatment and a bit more recovery time. The reason why has to do with the role wisdom teeth play, the nature of impacted teeth, and the ways in which we treat them.
What are Wisdom Teeth?
Occasionally referred to as third molars, wisdom teeth are the last adult teeth to emerge, typically appearing in the late teens or early 20s. They’re the rearmost molars, and generally, there are only four of them, one in each “quadrant” of the mouth if you will. The “why” of wisdom teeth is still not fully understood and is the subject of some debate among anthropologists and medical professionals. A widely accepted theory is that due to the rough, coarse diet early humans ate, a late-emerging set of molars made up for wear and tear on older teeth by providing a fresh, new surface to chew on.
Impacted Teeth: Signs and Symptoms
Impacted teeth occur when a tooth fails to emerge from the gum/jaw during the normal development window. This may occur for several reasons: other teeth may be in the way, developmental delays may exist with the patient in question, an excess of soft tissue in the gum. Some impacted teeth may partially emerge, often at an undesired angle, while some may remain below the gumline. Surgery is a popular treatment for impacted teeth but isn’t always necessary.
Impacted wisdom teeth, however, often require intervention as they cause pain and put pressure on the existing rear molar. If you or a loved one are approaching “wisdom teeth age”, it’s a good idea to know the signs and symptoms of impacted wisdom teeth:
- Swelling is a common symptom. Generally swelling from impacted wisdom teeth occurs at the sight of the impaction–just to the rear of the existing molars. However, in some cases, you may notice swelling in the jaw or cheek as well.
- Infection is an unwelcome accompaniment to impacted wisdom teeth. Symptoms of infection may include pain, swell, bad breath/a bad taste in the mouth, and cyst or pus formation. If you notice these symptoms, please contact your dentist.
- Pain in the impacted area is a common symptom of impacted wisdom teeth. It can occur both at the site of the impaction and as pain in the jaw, neck, or the rest of the head.
As with so many things regarding your oral health, regular dental exams can help detect potential problems early. Your dentist will know the signs of emerging or impacted wisdom teeth and can give you medical advice appropriate to your situation. Generally speaking, there’s nothing to fear from wisdom teeth, impacted or not. Treating them is a routine procedure and generally involves only mild discomfort and inconvenience to the patient. If you or a loved one are at the right age for wisdom teeth to start to emerge, it’s a good idea to discuss the subject with your dentist ahead of time so that you can know what to expect.