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Why Your Wisdom Teeth Are Not As Wise As You May Have Hoped

What exactly are our wisdom teeth, what is their purpose, and above all else, why are they called wisdom teeth at all?

When people talk about excruciating pain from natural causes, probably top of the list (certainly if you are female!) would be child birth. Depending on the person and their medical history, passing a kidney stone, suffering from an intense migraine, or severe back pain may also make it into their personal top three. Another cause of extreme pain however, which many of us are unfortunately able to relate to, is the agonising toothache associated with problem wisdom teeth.

If you’ve never suffered the agony of wisdom teeth, you may be one of the evolutionary lucky ones. Apparently, a lucky 35% of us will never develop wisdom teeth, possibly due to a mutating gene dating back some 300-400,000 years. [source: RedOrbit.com]
Depending on which data you choose to believe, between 25-70% of us who do develop wisdom teeth, will have problems and need to have them removed. (Why the skewed data? Many medical plans in the US cover the routine removal of wisdom teeth… perhaps the reason why up to 75% of American dentists recommend their removal, even if they are causing no problems? [source: http://www.care2.com/causes/the-latest-wisdom-about-wisdom-teeth-keep-them-in.html])

Leaving all that aside, what exactly are our wisdom teeth, what is their purpose, and above all else, why are they called wisdom teeth at all? Here’s a more in-depth look at these unique teeth.

What are our wisdom teeth?

Our wisdom teeth are our “third molars” and are often referred to as such. They develop far later than our other teeth, usually in our late teens or early twenties. At times however, there isn’t enough room in the mouth for the wisdom teeth to come through properly, which can then lead to numerous complications including severe tooth and gum pain. Most adults will have a total of 28 teeth, as well as 4 wisdom teeth, taking the total number of teeth in the mouth up to 32. The idea behind these final molars is to make life easier but this isn’t always the case for all of us.

Why Do they Cause Us Problems?

Turning back the evolutionary clock to caveman times, our human ancestors had four sets of three molars. This gave us a total of 12 ‘grinding teeth’ – six in the upper jaw and six in the lower jaw. We used these molars to help chew and grind food. Unlike other mammals, however, during the passage of evolution,  we humans underwent a period in which our brains greatly expanded in size. This created an architectural problem; with a much larger brain case, the jaw had to become narrower so that it could still connect to the lower part of the skull.
However, the genes that control the quantity of teeth, evolve independently from those that control brain development. And over the course of thousands of years, this has led to a mismatch. Today the human jaw is no longer large enough, in many cases, to give wisdom teeth room to erupt through the gums and sit properly in the mouth. [source: livescience.com]

Why are they called wisdom teeth? 

You, like countless other people, are probably wondering why they’re referred to as wisdom teeth at all, and in order for us to get an answer, we need to go way back to the seventeenth century. Back in the seventeenth century, these teeth were commonly referred to as “teeth of wisdom” until that gradually changed to “wisdom teeth” in the nineteenth century. The reason they got these names is actually very simple. As the teeth don’t emerge until a person is in their late teens/early twenties, they appear at a time when a person is wiser than when they were younger, because they will basically know more now than back then.

Why do we  focus so much on wisdom teeth?

If a person is suffering with toothache as a result of their wisdom teeth, they will often refer to it as wisdom tooth ache, saying something similar such as “my wisdom teeth are hurting”. But why is it not the same with our other teeth? If any other teeth are hurting, we simply say we have toothache, we don’t say we have “molar toothache”, “incisor toothache” etc. The main reason why they get singled out is because there are only four of them, and as they come in so late, we can pinpoint which teeth they are right away. Another reason is that the pain associated with wisdom teeth coming through is pretty memorable and is not something a person would wish to experience again in a hurry.

Why do we have them anyway?

The simple answer is to help us chew more food and to make our teeth more efficient but the slightly longer answer is that experts believe it is all down to evolution. They believe that we develop these teeth because our early ancient ancestor’s diets were so rough, including raw meat, leaves, nuts, berries, leaves, etc. These foods required extra chewing and as a result, experts believe that they are evolution’s way of giving us a helping hand so to speak. The only problem is that in today’s world of ever more processed food, they could be said to be several million years too late, making them not quite as wise as they would have us believe!

For more random tooth fact, see my article,  15 Random Facts About Dentistry, Gum disease and Periodontitis You Probably Never Knew.
Dr Peter Galgut is one of the UK’s leading periodontists. He specialises in reversing periodontal disease and reversing gum disease. You can contact him here – http://periodontal.co.uk/ask-a-periodontist/

Peter Galgut

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