At a glance

  • Wisdom teeth are right at the back of the mouth.

  • They break through the gums later in life – sometimes only in part, if at all.

  • They often don't cause any problems.

  • But they sometimes lead to pain and inflammations.

  • Wisdom teeth are only removed if they cause too many problems.

Introduction

Photo of a dentist discussing an x-ray with a patient (PantherMedia / Robert Kneschke)

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 teethUpper 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.

Learn more

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.