Why Do We Have Wisdom Teeth?

wisdom teeth

There are a few theories as to why we have wisdom teeth, but it is now generally accepted that wisdom teeth are throwbacks to our ancient past. Way back when, (and I’m talking tens of thousands of years ago) humans couldn’t easily digest the cellulose in plant tissue, which comprised most of our diet in those days. The third molar was vital in grinding the plant tissue, to make it easier for us to digest. Fossil finds confirm that human jaws, in those days, were much bigger and had more teeth.

As our diet changed, so did our jaw structure. Our mouths became smaller, and our teeth fewer; but, unfortunately, the third molar did not disappear, and today is one of the biggest causes of dental problems in adults.

The third molar is commonly called a “wisdom tooth”, because it only erupts much later in life, usually when you are between 19 and 25 years of age. They are the last teeth or third molars in each quarter of your mouth.

Common Problems Associated with Wisdom Teeth

wisdom tooth problem

  • Alignment The most common problem is misalignment. The tooth erupts horizontally rather than vertically. It can lean either towards or away from the second molar, or it can lean either inwards or outwards. This misalignment can crowd the adjacent teeth, causing damage to the teeth, jawbone and nerves.
  • Partial Eruption Because of the crowding through misalignment, the wisdom tooth can only break part-way out of the jaw. This causes a cavity between the wisdom tooth and the second molar, which traps food and causes infection.
  • Impaction When only partially erupted, the wisdom tooth can become covered by a flap of skin; it has even been known for the jaw to attempt to grow back over the partially erupted tooth. This flap of skin, again, provides a perfect place for food to collect, and to then give rise to all kinds of nasty infections.
  • Hard to Reach Location Because of their position right at the back of the mouth, wisdom teeth are extremely difficult to reach and clean with normal oral hygiene tools. This makes them prone to tooth decay.

What are the Symptoms?

There are a few common symptoms associated with problems with wisdom teeth.

  • Jaw stiffness or pain near the impacted tooth
  • Irritation and pain caused by the awkward angle at which the tooth is erupting. The tooth rubs against either the tongue, cheek and/or the top or bottom of your mouth.
  • Swelling and pain around the flap of skin that has grown over the partially erupted tooth.
  • Movement and pain of the adjacent teeth; caused by the crowding of these teeth.
  • Tooth decay or gum disease

No one is quite sure why we still have wisdom teeth, but have them we do, and they can cause problems; excessive pain usually being the worst of the symptoms. Unfortunately, in most cases, extraction of the tooth seems to be the best solution. There is some debate as to whether wisdom teeth, that are not causing a problem, should or shouldn’t be extracted. Research is still inconclusive on this question.

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