Why 5 million Americans get their wisdom teeth removed each year

Why 5 million Americans get their wisdom teeth removed each year
  • Wisdom teeth suck for many reasons - they can be painful and if left untreated, can cause tooth decay, gum infection, and even tumors.
  • Each year, 5 million Americans get their wisdom teeth removed, which costs about $3 billion in total dental costs.
  • But these pesky molars haven't always been a nuisance.
  • Watch the video above to learn how our ancient ancestors used wisdom teeth.

Anyone who had to pay a visit to the dentist to pull their wisdom teeth out can tell you how much nuisance they cause. They can not only be painful but also cause tooth decay and even tumors. For our ancestors, however, wisdom teeth were much more useful than they are today.

Following is a transcript of the video.

Each year 5 million Americans get their wisdom teeth removed, which costs about $3 billion in total medical costs. But for many, it's worth it, since leaving them in can cause serious problems like gum infection, tooth decay, and even tumors. But wisdom teeth weren't always the unwelcome threat we see today.

Wisdom teeth have been around for millennia. Our ancient ancestors used them the same way we use our other 8 molars: To grind up food, which was especially handy before the advent of cooking, around 7,000 years ago, back when our diet consisted of raw meat and plants that were fibrous and tough to chew.

But once we got our hands on softer, cooked foods, our powerful jaws no longer needed to work as hard and shrank as a result. But here's the problem. The genes that determine the size of our jaws are completely separate from the genes that determine how many teeth we grow. So as our jaws shrank, we still kept all 32 teeth, and it eventually got to the point where there wasn't enough space to fit all of the teeth.

But why did wisdom teeth, specifically, get the boot? Well, they're the last to show up to the party. Wisdom teeth don't usually grow in until you're between 16 and 18 years old. And by that time, chances are your other 28 teeth have taken up all the available space in your mouth.

In that case, instead of growing in like a normal tooth, wisdom teeth get trapped or impacted in your jaw, which often makes them grow in at odd angles and press against your back molars, causing pain and swelling.

It also forms a narrow crevice between the teeth, creating the perfect food trap. This makes the tooth difficult to clean, which attracts more bacteria and can cause infection and tooth decay, eventually leading to gum disease, if left untreated.

But it gets worse. Tooth decay can eventually destroy your wisdom tooth. So, to save you and your teeth from such a horrible fate, dentists will often remove wisdom teeth before they go rogue. Seems reasonable, right?

Well, it's actually a controversial topic among some in the dental community. The worry is that we're removing our wisdom teeth too frequently, often when it's unnecessary and the teeth pose no threat, like if your mouth is big enough, or you're one of the 38% of people who don't develop all four wisdom teeth.

In that case, risks from surgery, like infection and nerve damage, pose more danger than the teeth themselves.

But the fact remains: When wisdom teeth do become a problem, you'll curse the day our ancestors invented cooking.