Wisdom teeth are the upper and lower third molars, located at the very back of the mouth. They are called wisdom teeth because usually they come in when a person is between age 17 and 21 or older—old enough to have gained some "wisdom." Wisdom teeth that are healthy and properly positioned do not cause problems.
What causes problems with wisdom teeth?
Wisdom teeth may break partway through your gums, causing a flap of gum tissue to grow over them where food can become trapped and a gum infection can develop. Wisdom teeth can also come in crooked or facing the wrong direction. Or, if your jaw is not large enough to give them room, wisdom teeth may become impacted and unable to break through your gums. You may have trouble properly cleaning around wisdom teeth because they are so far in the back of your mouth and may be crowded.
What are the symptoms of wisdom tooth problems?
Wisdom teeth often cause no symptoms. Symptoms that may mean your wisdom teeth need to be removed include:
Pain or jaw stiffness near an impacted tooth.
Pain or irritation from a tooth coming in at an awkward angle and rubbing against your cheek, tongue, or top or bottom of the mouth.
An infected swelling in the flap of gum tissue that has formed on top of an impacted tooth that has partially broken through the gum.
Crowding of other teeth.
Tooth decay or gum disease if there's not enough room to properly care for the wisdom tooth and surrounding teeth.
Most problems with wisdom teeth develop in people between the ages of 15 and 25. Few people older than 30 develop problems that require removal of their wisdom teeth.
How are problems with wisdom teeth diagnosed?
Your dentist will examine your teeth and gums for signs of a wisdom tooth coming through your gum or crowding other teeth. You will have X-rays to find out whether your wisdom teeth are causing problems now or are likely to cause problems in the future.
How are wisdom tooth problems treated?
The most common treatment for wisdom tooth problems is removal (extraction) of the tooth. Experts disagree about whether to remove a wisdom tooth that is not causing symptoms or problems. Oral surgeons generally agree that removing a wisdom tooth is easier in younger people (usually in their early 20s), when the tooth's roots and the jawbone are not completely developed. In the late 20s and older, the jawbone tends to get harder, and healing generally takes longer.