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. What's more, 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, it could result in 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. And of course, if they do end up causing problems, you can just remove them later.

Related Video: Why Do Wisdom Teeth Come in Later?

Root of the Problem

Why do we even have wisdom teeth at all? The answer lies in evolution. Wisdom teeth were very useful tools before human beings discovered fire and began cooking their food. If your diet consisted entirely of raw meat, nuts, and tough, fibrous plants, you'd want as many molars as you can get.

That may be why they grow in after puberty: In case you lose teeth growing up, you'd have a backup set when you needed them. Having a spare set of tough molars pop up in the back of the jaw offered an evolutionary advantage. In the meantime, we started eating softer foods and, eventually, taking better care of our teeth, so we no longer need the extra help.

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? Well, for some people, that seems to be the case: They don't form fully in roughly 35 percent of the population. For the rest of us, evolution has just caused problems. 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.

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For more on human evolution, check out "Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind" by Yuval Noah Harari. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Austin Jesse Mitchell February 27, 2019

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