I had all four of my wisdom teeth plucked from mouth back when I was in high school — not because I was in pain, but simply because my dentist at the time told me to. Had I waited much longer to have them removed, he explained, those four large chompers would have become impacted, thrusting my other teeth forward, resulting in mouthfuls of pain and undoing all the hard work my braces had done several years prior.
Convinced, I bid my wisdom teeth farewell and never looked back… until now.
I recently discovered that, in England, routine wisdom teeth removal was halted back in 1998, after a study at the University of York concluded that no scientific evidence supported the procedure on a routine basis. During that same year, the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh also released a statement claiming that removal is “not advisable” in patients who do not already have some kind of condition related to their wisdom teeth.
In many other countries, though, including America, routine wisdom teeth removal remains a standard procedure, with the logic being that problems as a result of leaving them in are inevitable, so they might as well be removed before anything happens. The trouble is, more and more research suggests that this is being needlessly overcautious: One 2011 study of more than 6,000 patients in Greece who had their wisdom teeth removed found that less than three percent of the teeth contained a cyst or tumor — common reasons cited for removing them — and a 1998 study found that only 12 percent of about 1,750 middle-aged people who avoided having their impacted wisdom teeth removed experienced complications.
More recently, in 2008, the American Public Health Association ousted a bunch of the frequent arguments made for the routine removal of wisdom teeth, such as damage to nearby teeth and wisdom teeth sheltering bacteria that could result in periodontal disease. The association concluded, “The few studies of long-term retention of impacted teeth have shown little risk of harm.”
On the flip side, while it’s unlikely, both the removal itself and the use of anesthetic could possibly result in some debilitating side effects, with nerve damage and loss of your sense of taste at the extreme end (and sometimes even death if serious complications occur, although it’s important to note that this is extremely rare). Perhaps more pertinently, studies also show a strong connection between wisdom teeth removal and opioid addiction, with one study finding that six percent of the 15,000 people studied developed addictions after being prescribed opiate-based painkillers after dental surgery.
None of this is to say that you should definitely avoid having your wisdom teeth removed if your dentist suggests doing so, though — there are plenty of studies that still show leaving them in for too long leads to an increased risk of complications down the road. Read any of the anecdotes from people who’ve developed serious problems and pain as a result of leaving their wisdom teeth in — such as the one told by this person on Reddit — and you’ll definitely want to at least consider it:
“I was told to get my wisdoms removed because they were going to become severely impacted. Me, having a huge phobia of dentists due to horrible experiences in my childhood, thought I could tough it out and just keep going on without having them removed.
“Made it about a year into them being impacted before I went to the ER because the pain was that bad. I was eventually prescribed Oxycodone just to be able to sleep for the week and a half leading up to getting them removed. After surgery, I didn’t even need to take Ibuprofen because the difference in pain was so dramatic.
“If they start hurting, get them out of your skull. Learn from my mistake.”
The fact that there are so many conflicting studies, then, is a big part of the problem. “Ask three dentists the same question, and you’re going to get four different answers,” dentist William McCormick told Mental Floss, referring to the different arguments surrounding wisdom teeth removal. An overall lack of studies on the subject is a problem, too, as this article for the New York Times points out: “There does not appear to be a single randomized clinical trial — the gold standard for scientific proof — comparing similar patients who have and have not undergone prophylactic wisdom teeth removal.”
So where does that leave a person who’s being told they should have their wisdom teeth removed? In general, until more conclusive research comes to fruition, most dentists agree that the best you can do is discuss the pros and cons with your dentist — and maybe get a second or third opinion if you have concerns — then proceed from there.
As for whether I needed my wisdom teeth removed, well, considering all the pain I went through, I’ll just convince myself that I did.