Do you or your child really need to have your wisdom teeth pulled?
While most young people routinely have the procedure performed out of concerns about developing various complications — tooth decay, gum infections, cysts, an abscess — there isn’t actually a lot of scientific evidence for having your wisdom teeth removed, the New York Times finds. Having all four teeth removed can cost several thousand dollars, though many insurance companies cover the full cost of the oral surgery.
The American Association of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeons‘ website says that “between 25 percent and almost 70 percent” of the time, “asymptomatic wisdom teeth” are “routinely extracted.” That is, even when people have no pain or discomfort with their wisdom teeth, they still have them extracted in a procedure that is frankly no fun. The surgery carries the risk of possible nerve damage, complications from anesthesia, loss of the sense of taste and, in rare cases, death.
Oral surgeons contend that you can face greater risks if you don’t have surgery to remove wisdom teeth, which can become partly grown in or impacted below the gums:
“It’s hard to get a percentage, but probably 75 to 80 percent of people do not meet the criteria of being able to successfully maintain their wisdom teeth,” said Dr. Louis K. Rafetto of Wilmington, Del., who headed the American Association of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeons’ task force on wisdom teeth.
Another expert, Dr. Raymond P. White Jr., a professor of surgery at the University of North Carolina School of Dentistry, said that roughly 60 to 70 percent of patients with wisdom teeth will eventually have trouble with them, but he acknowledged that data is limited. “We’re making decisions based on the best data we have,” he said.
But while the association says that “80 percent of young adults who retained previously healthy wisdom teeth developed problems within seven years, and that retained wisdom teeth are extracted up to 70 percent of the time,” it did not have evidence to back up those figures. The New York Times further points out that there does not appear to be a single randomized clinical trial — studies that are considered the “gold standard for scientific proof” — for prophylactic wisdom teeth removal versus keeping wisdom teeth. Britain’s National Health Service stopped paying for the surgery after the Center for Reviews and Dissemination at the University of York concluded that there was no solid scientific evidence to support it. A 2005 review in the Cochrane Collaboration cited “reliable evidence” that removing wisdom teeth does not help with crowding of front teeth.
I still remember having my wisdom teeth removed the summer after I graduated from college. After wearing braces and retainers, finding myself back in the orthodontist’s chair was no big deal. But after the surgery, I came down with a sapping, flu-like illness and had to be semi-carried by my mother to see a doctor. I recovered, and, as it was August, I didn’t miss anything while lying around feeling deathly ill. I certainly wasn’t expecting to hear that a procedure often thought to be a rite of passage for young Americans may not actually be necessary.
Is it better to err on the side of caution and have your wisdom teeth removed? Or has prophylactic wisdom teeth removal become simply routine, so that it is time to get a better understanding of how necessary the procedure may be?
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