Science

Wisdom teeth: what’s the point?

You may have read about Lucas Unger, the Californian who recently proposed to his girlfriend using a ring with a truly personal and slightly odd touch – his wisdom tooth embedded into a ring. The lucky girl said yes and they are set to be married. However, third molars, commonly known as wisdom teeth, are often the bringers of pain rather than pleasure.

Whether it be unpleasant aches from the teeth pushing through, a nasty infection that requires antibiotic treatment or even having them extracted from your mouth: most people have a horror story. Students unfortunately seem to be worst hit by wisdom teeth problems, as they usually appear between the ages of 17 to 25.

Our jaw typically accommodates room for 28 teeth, which is a full set of adult teeth prior to the third molars emerging. However, up to four of these additional wisdom teeth can push through. These third molars can cause lots of problems if our jaw is not big enough to accommodate them. They can become impacted, meaning that as it pushes through the gum it can push up against our second molar tooth, becoming trapped and leaving it vulnerable to nasty bacterial infections. According to research by Dr Sands and colleagues, over 65 per cent of the population have at least one impacted wisdom tooth by the age of 20.

So if all they appear to be giving us is a toothache, why do we have them? It isn’t like we have a lack of teeth and the additional molars are desperately needed. However, our ancestors would have greatly benefitted from them. Their diets consisted of tough vegetation and raw meat, requiring serious chewing power. They were also unable to pop to the dentist every six months to maintain their oral hygiene, making rotten and broken teeth an unfortunate reality. Therefore, if they developed additional teeth then they would be at a great advantage, being able to obtain more nutrition.

However, softer diets and improved dental hygiene have led to wisdom teeth becoming redundant, with our initial 28 adult teeth serving their function. They are now more of hindrance than a help. According to Professor Alan Mann, it is evolutionary pressures that has led to wisdom teeth becoming such a problem. Our ancestors typically had much larger jaws. “Impacted wisdom teeth can be blamed on our development of large brains, which caused the shape of our skulls to change and shortened our mouths leaving no room for a third molar,” Professor Alan Mann added.

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