Your wisdom teeth are kind of like the appendix of your mouth. They’re there, but there’s really no reason for them, and sometimes they can unleash utter chaos upon your body.
That’s why so many dentists recommend people undergo a wisdom teeth removal procedure, even if their wisdom teeth aren't causing any problems. Of course, not everyone follows this advice.
Wisdom teeth removal isn't likely to be high on your to-do list if they're not bothering you. But, depending on how your teeth are situated, they can cause trouble for you and your mouth down the road if you leave them in there.
Wisdom teeth can wreak havoc on your mouth in a few ways.
Can't remember what the heck your wisdom teeth are? Well, you actually might not even have the molars (flat teeth in the back of your mouth) known as wisdom teeth. They aren't necessary for your overall chewing ability, so not everyone develops them.
► See also: How To Know If Wisdom Teeth Really Need To Be Removed
But if you do, these four teeth—two on top, two on bottom—are the third and final set of molars you'll get. They usually erupt, i.e., push through your gums, when you’re in your late teens or early 20s, Susan Maples, D.D.S., author of Blabber Mouth! 77 Secrets Only Your Mouth Can Tell You to Live a Healthier, Happier, Sexier Life, tells SELF.
Sometimes wisdom teeth can be impacted, which happens when they try to squeeze into a spot where there’s no room, which can crowd the rest of your teeth, Mark S. Wolff, D.D.S., Ph.D., professor and chair of the department of cariology and comprehensive care at the New York University College of Dentistry, tells SELF.
This might happen when they grow in at an angle or flat on their sides, or they might stay in their lane but get trapped within the jawbone instead of fully erupting. All of this can lead to complications like pain, fluid-filled cysts, or damage to the nearby teeth or bones.
This can also make it harder to clean your teeth properly, which can lead to periodontitis (gum disease) symptoms like swollen and bleeding gums and bad breath. It can even cause difficulty opening your mouth, according to the Mayo Clinic.
If this doesn't sound painless, that's because it's not. Wisdom teeth can cause discomfort when they come in, even if they do so properly. And if they become infected on top of that, well, you may unfortunately be in for some serious aches and soreness.
“When that occurs there’s no question those teeth have to come out,” Dr. Wolff says. To avoid this painful rigamarole, your dentist may recommend having your wisdom teeth removed before they can make trouble, even if you feel totally fine.
Like most trips to the dentist, getting your wisdom teeth removed all starts with an exam.
Whether you’re having pain or not, your dentist will typically want to do an X-ray to see what’s going on with your wisdom teeth—namely, how they’re positioned and how much room you have for them to grow.
If you're experiencing symptoms or your dentist foresees problems with your wisdom teeth, you’ll schedule an appointment to actually have them removed. This will be done by either your dentist or an oral surgeon, depending on how your teeth are positioned and how often your dentist actually does this procedure.
Thanks to sedation, the procedure itself shouldn't hurt.
Luckily, wisdom teeth removal isn't something out of Saw: The Dentist Will See You Now. You'll get some sort of numbing mechanism. It may be local anesthesia (you're awake and may feel pressure but shouldn't feel pain), sedation (you're awake but with lessened consciousness and won't remember much), or general anesthesia (you're completely knocked out and won't remember jack).
The type you get depends on how difficult the dentist or surgeon thinks the procedure will be, plus how nervous you are, Dr. Wolff says. You’ll typically be asked to avoid eating or drinking for a certain amount of hours beforehand depending on what kind of anesthesia you'll be receiving.
Once your ability to feel pain has been dulled, your dentist or oral surgeon will use a special instrument to loosen and disconnect the tissue around your wisdom teeth, then essentially pop them out, Dr. Wolff says. (Sometimes they may divide the teeth into sections before removal if that's easier.)
The whole thing requires more “finesse” than force, Dr. Maples says. They may stitch the surgical sites up, but either way they'll put gauze over the holes to promote clotting that will help your wounds heal.
Recovery, on the other hand, can range from mildly uncomfortable to very, very painful.
After the procedure you'll be forced to take things easy and let yourself heal. Depending on your level of sedation, you may feel a little groggy afterwards, so you'll probably need someone to drive you home.
And don't be surprised if your face looks like a Snapchat chipmunk filter IRL for a few days. It's completely normal to experience swelling and pain after wisdom teeth removal, Dr. Wolff says.
With that said, your specific experience can range from, "Cool, I have a slightly uncomfortable day off work" to "I wonder if there's any way to just entirely remove my mouth from my head." Your level of post-procedure pain will depend on factors like whether you just got one tooth out or all four and how impacted the teeth were. No matter what, your gums where your wisdom teeth were will typically be sore to the touch for about a week. But barring any complications, the pain tends to get a lot better after a day or two, Dr. Wolff says.
Some medical professionals will prescribe narcotics for the pain, but they are increasingly being encouraged to try something else due to the opioid crisis. (Dr. Maples says she typically suggests ibuprofen and acetaminophen.) You can also ask your dentist or surgeon about using an ice pack to relieve any pain, swelling, or bruising. Depending on how severe your extraction was, your dentist or surgeon may suggest you only eat soft foods for a certain amount of time, Dr. Wolff says.
Also, there's something called dry socket that you want to avoid at all costs.
Your doctor will likely tell you to stay hydrated, but avoid using a straw, typically for about two weeks, Dr. Wolff says (though this depends on how intense your extractions were).
Using a straw can lead to dry socket, an incredibly painful condition where the clot over an extraction site gets dislodged, exposing bare bone and nerves, Dr. Wolff says. So can cleaning your mouth too soon or too forcefully post-surgery, so be sure to ask for guidance as to how soon you can get back to your usual oral hygiene based on your specific situation.
If you do develop dry socket, your dentist can put a medicated paste in the socket to promote healing, although in rare occasions they need to go back and try to get closure of the socket by pulling the tissue over it, Dr. Wolff says.
Dry socket is the most common complication after tooth extraction, according to the Mayo Clinic, and it's often described as a world of pain, so it's really important that you follow all post-op instructions.
While having your wisdom teeth out shouldn't be terrible, there are a few things you can do to make the whole thing easier on yourself.
The first is to make sure you go to someone who knows what they’re doing. While your go-to dentist may be amazing, they also might not do this very often. If they say they only do a few a month, Dr. Maples recommends you ask for a referral to an oral surgeon.
Also, if you need your wisdom teeth removed, it really is...wise...to have the procedure done when you’re younger if possible rather than putting it off. As you get older, your teeth's roots form more fully and can make extractions tougher, Dr. Wolff says. You'll also have less vascularity in your jaw, so healing tends to take a little longer, Dr. Maples says.
Plus, the longer you leave wisdom teeth in, the greater your chances of developing cysts and abscesses. “Even if one of four [wisdom teeth] acts up in your lifetime, you would be happier to have them out earlier,” Dr. Maples says.
If you still have your wisdom teeth and you’re not sure what to do, talk to your dentist about it. They should be able to help you come up with a solid game plan. And, on the flip side, if your dentist is insisting you need them out but you're not sure, get a second opinion if you're able.
By Korin Miller