Say the words “wisdom tooth removal” in a room full of adults, and you are bound to hear at least a few horror stories about this dreaded tooth extraction procedure. The pain, bleeding, and swelling that comes with wisdom teeth removal recovery sticks in many people’s memories. Even the unlimited ice cream does little to soften the blow.
Wisdom tooth removal is common: Americans have upwards of ten million wisdom teeth extracted each year. But even so, many of us know relatively little about it. Why do we have wisdom teeth in the first place? How do you know if your wisdom teeth should be removed? And exactly how much does it cost to remove those wisdom teeth?
To help clear things up, here is everything you need to know about wisdom teeth removal - before, during, and after the procedure.
What are Wisdom Teeth and Why Do We Have Them?
Your wisdom teeth are a set of four adult teeth located in the back corners of your mouth. Wisdom teeth grow in usually between the ages of 17 and 24. Hence why they are called wisdom teeth in the first place: for the wise young adults who produce them.
Known medically as third molars, wisdom teeth have different names around the world. In Turkey, you can expect to get your yas disi, or “twentieth-year teeth.” In Korea, sa-rang-nee refer to “love teeth.” But Thailand hits the nail on the head with fan-khut, literally meaning “huddling tooth” to refer to the huddled lack of space available in our modern mouths for this final set of teeth.
Which brings us to the question many people have: If there isn’t enough space in our mouths to accommodate them, why do we have wisdom teeth at all?
Most anthropologists believe wisdom teeth were necessary for our caveman ancestors, who lived on a diet of raw roots, leaves, meat, and nuts. But since then, we evolved to cook our food and use utensils that otherwise cut, crush, and mash it into manageable pieces. In other words, modern humans just don’t need wisdom teeth anymore.
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How do you know if your wisdom teeth should be removed?
When our modern diets evolved, so too did our jawlines. Unfortunately for many of us, our wisdom teeth never got the memo. Our downsized mandibles no longer have room to comfortably fit wisdom teeth, but the majority of people still develop them. And it is this one step in our human development that causes many of us to seek wisdom tooth pain relief.
For some people, wisdom teeth coming in turns out to be no big deal; they experience no wisdom tooth pain or other problems because their teeth erupt fully and without issue. In other cases, wisdom teeth don’t have enough room to come in normally, if at all.
Impacted and partially impacted wisdom teeth
When a wisdom tooth forms in the mouth but never breaks through the gums, it is referred to as impacted. One that emerges only part way is called a partially impacted wisdom tooth.
In both cases, the tooth often grows at an angle because of lack of space in the mouth. This becomes the source of many potential problems, including:
- Wisdom tooth pain
- Trapped food leading to decay
- Damage to nearby teeth or the surrounding jaw bone
- Bacterial growth along the opening in the gumline of a partially impacted tooth
- Development of a cyst around wisdom teeth
How to tell if your wisdom teeth should be removed
When an impacted wisdom tooth causes pain or damage, wisdom tooth removal is usually recommended. Only your dentist can tell for sure whether your wisdom teeth should be removed, so it is important to schedule regular dental exams. Also, make an appointment with your dentist if you notice any of the following symptoms:
- Red or swollen gums
- Tender or bleeding gums
- Jaw pain
- Swelling around the jaw
- Difficulty opening your mouth
The nitty gritty on the wisdom tooth removal procedure
Most dentists recommend impacted wisdom teeth should be removed when the roots are between ⅓ and ⅔ formed. Waiting until later is more difficult and increases the risk of complications like injury to your nerves and sinuses.
Impacted wisdom tooth removal is almost always an outpatient procedure. Depending on the complexity, it is performed either by a dentist or an oral surgeon. Wisdom tooth removal surgery involves removing anh bone blocking access to the root, followed by the tooth extraction itself. Stitches are sometimes necessary, but not always.
Pain from wisdom tooth extraction
The surgery itself shouldn’t hurt, because you will get either local or general anesthesia. It is in the days following surgery that most people experience pain. The amount of discomfort depends on the extent of the surgery, whether or not you use pain medication, and of course, your own pain threshold. But most people experience some level of discomfort for three or more days.
The cost of wisdom tooth removal
Wisdom tooth extraction costs vary, but a simple removal is usually in the range of $75-$200 per tooth. Impacted wisdom teeth cost between $225-$600 per tooth. The good news is, most dental insurance plans cover wisdom tooth removal.
Wisdom Teeth Removal Aftercare
There’s no getting around it - wisdom teeth removal recovery is no picnic. For starters, make sure someone is available to drive you home from your wisdom teeth surgery, or if not, arrange for a cab. You will be in no shape to drive. After that, plan for between 3-7 days of TLC while you recover.
Pain, swelling and bleeding after wisdom tooth surgery
Wisdom teeth swelling and pain lasts anywhere between 3-4 days and up to a full week. Ice packs help minimize swelling, and your doctor may give you medications to manage pain.
Expect some bleeding after wisdom tooth extraction. Your dentist will give you gauze to bite on to help control the blood.
What to eat after wisdom teeth removal
After surgery, choose foods that are nourishing but comfortable. Many people prefer soft foods for the first few days, although this depends on your own comfort level and any specific instructions from your dentist.
Do avoid anything extremely hot or spicy during the initial recovery period. Also avoid drinking from a straw for two weeks post surgery. We’ll talk about that more in a minute.
Avoiding dry socket wisdom teeth
You might be surprised to hear that the hole takes several months to fully close after tooth extraction. Your dentist will also advise you to avoid certain activities for a period of time because of the risk of dry socket. The name makes it sound pretty innocuous, but it is actually very painful and potentially dangerous.
After wisdom tooth extraction, a blood clot forms in the hole in the bone where the tooth was removed — otherwise known as the socket. This blood clot protects the exposed bone and nerves, but if it dislodges or dissolves in the days following surgery, your bone and nerves are left exposed to food, fluids, and bacterial infections.
To help prevent dry socket after wisdom tooth removal, avoid these activities for about two weeks post surgery (your dentist will give you a specific timeline and instructions):
- Drinking from a straw
- Strenuous exercise
Your Dentist is the Best Resource
If you are nervous about wisdom tooth removal, your dentist is your best resource. Call or make an appointment to talk about any specific concerns. Having your wisdom teeth extracted is a dreaded task, but you aren’t the first person to do it, so your dentist has time-tested advice to help you get through it.