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Wisdom teeth: Overview

Last Update: May 7, 2020; Next update: 2023.

Introduction

Wisdom teeth come in at the very back of our mouth, with one at the end of each row of teeth. They usually don’t develop fully until the ages of 18 to 24, and it is only then that they appear, if they do at all. These teeth are commonly thought of as “troublemakers” because there often isn’t enough space for them and they can cause problems.

Illustration: Upper and lower jaw, with wisdom teeth

Upper and lower jaw, with wisdom teeth

Wisdom teeth are thought to date back to our distant ancestors who had larger jaws and more teeth. Nowadays, most people’s jaws are too small for these “extra” teeth. For a while in the past they were almost always pulled. But because they don’t always cause problems, and removing them can lead to other problems, dentists are now a bit more hesitant.

Prevalence

There are usually four wisdom teeth in each jaw. They don't always break through the gums and grow out, though: In about 80 out of 100 young adults, at least one wisdom tooth stays inside the jaw. Sometimes a wisdom tooth doesn't grow out fully: Part of the crown might then still be covered by gum tissue, or the tooth might not grow out into the mouth as far as other teeth do.

Effects

When wisdom teeth don't break through the gums, or don't grow out completely, it often isn't a problem. But in some people it can lead to pain, swelling or inflamed gums. The wisdom teeth may also damage nearby teeth and increase the likelihood of tooth decay.

The same is true if wisdom teeth break through: Sometimes they have enough space. But they may push against other teeth, come in crooked, and cause inflammations or other complications.

Diagnosis

If you're worried about your wisdom teeth, it's best to talk to your dentist. He or she will first ask you about your symptoms and examine your mouth and jaw. An x-ray is taken to see the position of the wisdom teeth. This thorough examination can help to predict whether the wisdom teeth will cause problems or will come in normally.

Treatment

If one or more wisdom teeth start causing problems, they will usually need to be pulled. This can usually be done in an outpatient setting using a local anesthetic (in other words, without a hospital stay).

In the past, even wisdom teeth that weren't causing any problems used to be pulled in most cases. But nowadays this is usually only recommended if the teeth are causing problems or it's thought that they will do in the future.

Further information

Many people go to the dentist regularly for check-ups rather than just when they have toothache. Read about how to find the right dentist, how to prepare for the appointment and what to remember.

Sources

  • Deutsche Gesellschaft für Mund-, Kiefer- und Gesichtschirurgie (DGMKG), Deutsche Gesellschaft für Zahn-, Mund- und Kieferheilkunde (DGZMK). Operative Entfernung von Weisheitszähnen (S2k-Leitlinie). AWMF-Registernr.: 007-003. August 2019.
  • Dodson TB, Susarla SM. Impacted wisdom teeth. BMJ Clin Evid 2014: pii: 1302.
  • IQWiG health information is written with the aim of helping people understand the advantages and disadvantages of the main treatment options and health care services.

    Because IQWiG is a German institute, some of the information provided here is specific to the German health care system. The suitability of any of the described options in an individual case can be determined by talking to a doctor. We do not offer individual consultations.

    Our information is based on the results of good-quality studies. It is written by a team of health care professionals, scientists and editors, and reviewed by external experts. You can find a detailed description of how our health information is produced and updated in our methods.

© IQWiG (Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care)
Bookshelf ID: NBK279591

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