Third molars have been referred to as “teeth of wisdom” since the 17th Century and simply “wisdom teeth” since the 19th Century. The third molars generally appear much later than other teeth, usually between the ages of 17 and 25 when a person reaches adulthood. It is generally thought among linguists that they are called wisdom teeth because they appear so late, at an age when a person matures into adulthood and is “wiser” than when other teeth have erupted.
Recent research has shown the brain continues to grow and develop right on through adolescence: in fact, most researchers believe the brain does not reach full maturity until the age of 25. Perhaps, then, our ancestors weren’t so far off the mark — that the eruption of “wisdom teeth” is a sign that the carefree days of childhood have given way to the responsibilities of adulthood.
Let me share my own experience with these famous wisdom teeth, I believe it was when I also gained wisdom about the importance of visiting a dentist early in life. My lower set of wisdom teeth began to orient themselves abnormally during my teens causing the gums around the wisdom to get swollen. Painful episodes of gum pain, termed pericoronitis, caused me to stay up at night in my dormitory. The pain was so unbearable that I found it wise to visit a dentist rather than use herbal concoctions and off-the-counter medications. As I laid under the dental surgeon’s tools and slowly coming out of the local anaesthesia, I wondered to myself: Where did these teeth come from, and why are they so painful? Have I gained enough wisdom? Now that it has been removed has my wisdom gone?
Where did these teeth come from?
Throughout childhood, our permanent teeth emerge from the gums in a gradual sequential manner, starting with the first permanent molar and incisors between ages 6 to 9 years. By our early teens, most teeth are in place except the wisdom teeth. It is the last tooth to erupt into the mouth
Why do they often cause so much “wahala” (trouble)?
If there is not adequate space in the jaws to accommodate the wisdom teeth, the wisdom teeth become impacted, meaning they are unable to penetrate the gums properly. Partially erupted or impacted wisdom teeth make the area difficult to clean and allow food to lodge under the gum to give bacteria enough nutrients for an infection to occur. This can lead to pain, swelling, and stiffness in the jaw. Food debris trapped between the mispositioned wisdom tooth and its adjacent tooth can cause tooth decay. Before making any decisions about your painful wisdom tooth, kindly see your dentist and he or she will examine your mouth, take a radiograph (x-ray), and together, you and your dentist can discuss the best course of treatment.
What are their uses and why are they impacted these days?
Several million years ago, our hominin ancestors had humongous back teeth that were very helpful for our prehistoric ancestors who needed serious chewing power to grind through nuts, rough plants, seeds, and foliage which made up the bulk of their diets. Australopith species, like the Lucy fossil, had molars with chewing surfaces about twice the area of ours today. Since the era of Australopiths, dental size has been on the decline in the human lineage.
Currently, we have softer diets filled with carbohydrates and high-calorie foods. The industrialization of food production has really softened our meals. So, the idea is that processed diets reduce the stress on our jaws necessary to induce full growth during adolescence. By the time we are approaching adulthood, there may not be enough space to accommodate our final molars. Hard food during childhood seems to stimulate jaw growth, allowing the mouth to grow large enough for the molars.
Do wisdom teeth come with wisdom and what happens after removal?
The wisdom teeth don’t necessarily bring wisdom, it is just believed that one should already be able to make wise decisions within the age bracket the teeth are likely to erupt. There is no need to feel down or have excessive pride concerning the presence, absence or removal of your wisdom teeth. Having wisdom teeth removed is a common procedure for most Ghanaian teens and young adults and it should be done by a specialist, oral & maxillofacial surgeon.
Today, people eat considerably softer foods than our ancestors did, and our mouths are not growing to their full potential. If you are not sure if your wisdom teeth are in, impacted, or missing, make an appointment to visit a dentist for assessment to evaluate your wisdom teeth and overall oral health.
AUTHOR: DR MICHAEL AWUA-MENSAH