Mind & Body

Getting Your Wisdom Teeth Removed Is Likely A Waste Of Time

Going under the knife to get your wisdom teeth taken out has become something of a rite of passage. It means you've reached the ripe old age of 17–25 and you're transitioning from adolescence into the world of young adulthood. Adulting is stressful enough as it is, so here's some good news: you probably don't really have to go through the added pain and discomfort of getting teeth pulled out at the same time. There is mounting evidence that wisdom teeth extraction is unnecessary.

The Tooth Hurts

According to a 2007 study in the American Journal of Public Health, at least two-thirds of wisdom teeth extractions are unnecessary. That's not an insignificant chunk, and new research suggests that wisdom tooth removal may be linked to an increased risk of opioid abuse. To be clear, there are cases when the procedure is necessary – if the new teeth get trapped below the gum line or collide with other teeth, the results include infection, cysts, tooth decay, and constant pain. But assuming your teeth grow in place the way they're supposed to, they generally don't cause any problems for the rest of your life. And of course, if they do end up causing problems, you can just remove them then.

Root of the Problem

So, why do we even have wisdom teeth at all? We can find the answer in evolutionary development and genetics. Wisdom teeth were very useful tools before human beings discovered fire and began cooking their food with it. If your diet consisted entirely of raw meat, nuts, and tough, fibrous plants, you'd want as many molars as you can get. This is why they grow in after puberty: Prehistoric people typically didn't have the best dental hygiene, so it was pretty much guaranteed that they'd be missing a handful of teeth by the time they reached their mid-life crises at around age 20 or so. Having a spare set of tough molars pop up in the back of the jaw offered an competitive evolutionary advantage. In the meantime, we started eating softer foods and taking better care of our teeth, so we no longer really need the extra help.

Why Wisdom Teeth Still Grow Anyways

So if we don't actually need our wisdom teeth anymore, and evolution put them there in the first place, can't evolution just take them away again? Unfortunately, evolution doesn't quite work like that. Genetic inheritance only goes forwards, not backwards, and it goes one set of genes at a time, keeping everything else along for the ride. Our jaws have shrunk in size since the discovery of fire, but the genes that determine human jaw size are completely different from the ones that determine how many teeth humans get. The result is that our now-smaller jaws still have to fit 32 teeth, and wisdom teeth get the boot because they're the last ones to show up. Wisdom teeth represent one of the most interesting fields of genetic research today because they form entirely after birth, yet they don't form fully in roughly 35% of the population.

Why Don't We Need Our Wisdom Teeth Anymore?

We once needed them. But just because we no longer need them doesn't mean we need them extracted.

Written by Austin Jesse Mitchell November 11, 2016

Curiosity uses cookies to improve site performance, for analytics and for advertising. By continuing to use our site, you accept our use of cookies, our Privacy Policy and Terms of Use.