Do wisdom teeth need to be removed?

Do a young person's wisdom teeth need to be removed? Once a rite of passage before college, routine wisdom-tooth extraction has been criticized in recent years as unnecessary and risky. And now, an influential doctors' group says it may be okay to leave them alone, The Wall Street Journal reported.

The American Association of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeons recommends surgeons offer young adults options "ranging from removal to a monitored retention plan," according to a statement posted last month on its website.

"Not everybody needs to have their wisdom teeth out, which is a different message than existed four or five years ago," said Dr. Raymond White Jr., principal investigator of wisdom-tooth research partially funded by the AAOMS. The group says the statement is a "clarification" of its 2011 recommendation that the teeth, sometimes called third molars, be removed if there is a "reasonable potential" they will cause problems.

But a person should still have them monitored with regular X-rays, added White, a professor of surgery at the University of North Carolina School of Dentistry in Chapel Hill. The reason: Just because a person's third molars aren't causing pain doesn't mean they are healthy, he says. The research, some of which was published in the AAOMS' journal last month, found that apparently symptom-free wisdom teeth may cause long-term chronic infections—which can weaken bone supporting surrounding teeth and even possibly affect a person's health. Some experts say the teeth should be examined regularly by an oral surgeon, while others say a general dentist can do it.

Wisdom teeth were useful in early humans with larger jaws, doctors say. But with our smaller jaws there is often insufficient space for them to develop normally. When they erupt, typically between ages 17 and 22, once jaw formation is complete, they may come in partially, or at an angle. In the 1960s, a major scientific publication promoted the idea they should be removed routinely, White said. According to a 2007 report in the American Journal of Public Health, 10 million wisdom teeth are extracted each year from five million people.

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