Is it really necessary to have your wisdom teeth out?

- Here's a list of factors that should be considered when evaluating the importance of having your third molars extracted.

Page animations.
Link to full vs. partial tooth impaction animation.

A) Do all wisdom teeth need to be removed?

No, without question a viewpoint that a tooth, just because it's a wisdom tooth, must be extracted is not justifiable.

There is nothing inherently bad about having wisdom teeth. Just like any other type of tooth, they can be a valuable part of a person's dentition (set of teeth).

B) Must impacted ones be extracted?

It might come as a surprise to you but no, not all impacted wisdom teeth necessarily need to be removed. It's certainly possible that a person who has one (or even several) could live their entire life without ever experiencing any problem with it.

Of course, the trick is being able to determine which impacted teeth are likely to cause trouble. This is where your dentist's experience and judgment comes into play.

Which kinds of impacted teeth are the most troublesome?

One of the primary factors that a dentist will take into consideration when evaluating an impacted wisdom tooth is its impaction type.

In regards to this factor, the following guidelines typically hold true.

Partially erupted teeth are more troublesome.

Full-bony impactions are typically less troublesome than partially-erupted teeth.

  • Overall, full bony impactions (a situation where the tooth is fully encased in the jawbone) are the type of impaction that's least likely to cause problems.

    [The types of problems that might be expected would typically fall along the line of cyst or tumor formation, or the cause of damage to a neighboring tooth. These are, however, relatively low-frequency events.]

  • Partially erupted teeth (the situation where just a portion of the tooth sticks through the gums) are the type most likely to become problematic.

    [It's their communication with the oral cavity, and the bacteria it harbors, places these teeth at greater risk for complications, especially pericoronitis (infection), periodontal disease (gum disease) and tooth decay.]

C) Some "impacted" wisdom teeth probably aren't.

When a tooth is evaluated, it's important to keep its normal eruption process in mind.

  • A typical time frame for third molars to come in is between the ages of 16 and 25 years.
  • For some people in this age group, it might be debated if the term "impacted" really applies to their tooth. After all, it's quite possible that it's still in the process of erupting and simply has not yet reached its final destination.

Using a wait-and-see approach.

In those cases where available jaw space and the tooth's alignment appear to be within normal limits, then quite possibly the tooth should simply be given more time to progress with its eruption process.

Then, at an age lying closer to the end of the normal eruption time frame, if it appears that the tooth really won't come in properly, it can still be extracted within that time window typically considered best for extracting wisdom teeth (the upper end of this range is age 24).

A mesially impacted tooth.

Mesially inclined teeth may still erupt properly.

Evidence in support of a wait-and-see approach for wisdom teeth.

One study, Hattab (1997), evaluated the change in position of mesially impacted third molars over time. (Our graphic shows the angulation of a mesial impaction.)

A group whose average age was 19.7 years was evaluated and then re-evaluated 4 years later (the time frame of normal wisdom tooth eruption).

Of these impacted teeth (whose forward tilt ranged between 5 and 30 degrees), 37% managed to successfully erupt (come into position fully) and 15% accomplished partial eruption.

[Our comment: In the case where a partially erupted tooth still needs to be removed, it's likely that its extraction at age 24 would be less of an ordeal for the patient than removing it as a full-bony impaction at age 19.7 years.]

D) The patient's age must be factored in.

When making a decision about what to do about an impacted wisdom tooth, it's important to consider the patient's age. There is no question; comparatively younger patients tend to experience fewer complications with third molar surgery than older adults.

Because of this, for those 35 years of age and beyond, if an impacted wisdom tooth exists (especially a full bony impaction) and it's not causing problems and shows no evidence of associated pathology, it's frequently just left alone.

E) Any retained wisdom teeth should be monitored regularly.

Over time, a wisdom tooth's status may change. This includes both its potential for the formation of pathology, or a change in its positioning (a full-bony impaction may transform into a less predictable partially-erupted tooth).

In other cases, even after being informed about the potential problems associated with their third molars, some patients will simply prefer to not have them extracted.

A panoramic dental x-ray.

Panoramic x-rays are usually used to evaluate 3rd molars.

X-ray examination will be required.

In these instances, a dentist will usually recommend that the teeth in question should be periodically re-evaluated. These examinations will almost certainly need to include the use of dental x-rays (taken every 12 to 24 months, depending upon the recommendation of your dentist).

F) Other complications and risks must be considered.

1) All surgery involves risk.

It's important to keep in mind that all types of surgery, including oral surgery, contain some inherent risk, no matter how minor.

For this reason, wisdom teeth should only be extracted in those cases where a reasonable case for their removal can be made. (See our page: Reasons why wisdom teeth should be extracted.)

2) Patients who have an illness or compromised health status.

The status of a person's health may contraindicate having an extraction. Considerations include underlying systemic disease and factors that may complicate or interfere with the healing process [diabetes, hepatic (liver) disease, blood disorders, renal (kidney) disease, steroid therapy, contraceptive medications, immunosuppression, and malnutrition].

In some cases, it may be possible to remove the wisdom tooth after the patient's medical issues have been resolved.

3) Potential damage to neighboring teeth or structures.

In some cases, the surgical procedure associated with accessing and removing an impacted wisdom tooth might be such that it is likely that nearby teeth or anatomical structures may be damaged.

As an example, lower wisdom teeth often lie in close relationship to the mandibular nerve. Trauma to this nerve can cause postoperative lip numbness (termed paresthesia), which may be permanent.

In other cases, it may seem likely that a second molar (or is surrounding bone tissue) might be damaged/compromised during the removal of a third molar, thus making its extraction a risky choice.


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