There are many good reasons for removing wisdom teeth also known as third molars, there are also some risks and complications that are possible when extracting these teeth and sometimes there are some good reasons for leaving them alone. The decision on a specific course of action must be determined by a well informed doctor and patient working together.

Consider first the many reasons that people choose to have their third molars extracted. By far one of the most common findings is that the mouth is just too small for these teeth to fully erupt into a good functional position. This leads to one of several situations.

1. The teeth remain completely buried in the bone of the upper and lower jaws in which they developed, a condition known as impaction. In the case of the fully impacted tooth, it may continue to sit in the bone, surrounded by the normal cyst in which all teeth develop. It may also happen that the normal cyst, later in life, enlarges and may even develop changes in the cells that line the cyst. When such cysts get large enough, they should be removed and examined by a pathologist.

2. The teeth begin to erupt but are not able to assume their correct upright position. Most commonly the upper third molars will tend to face out towards the cheeks while the lower third molars will lean forward with just a small portion of the crown protruding through the gum. Teeth that are partially erupted lead to two problems.

A) First they make hygiene of the second molars difficult leading to increased possiblity of decay and gum disease (periodontal disease) around these important teeth.

B) Second the pink flap of gum tissue which partially covers the erupting tooth creates a warm, moist and dark pocket where bacteria which normally live in the mouth can use the food you eat to flourish, multiply and cause an infection known as pericoronitis. In fortunate cases, the swelling and pain of this condition will be relieved when the infection drains back into the mouth. In those less fortunate, the swelling persists, does not drain back into the mouth but rather extends laterally and if not treated can become a very serious infection. The treatment of choice for pericoronitis is extraction of the offending tooth. Antibiotics, operculectomies and other adjuncitve treatments may be helpful from time to time but the problem has a propensity to return as long as the conditions which allowed it to develop in the first place continue to exist.

It is easy to understand why many people choose to hedge their bets and have their wisdom teeth extracted while they are young and healthy and the teeth are surrounded only by a small normal developmental cyst rather than have to undergo a more extensive surgical procedure later in life when their recovery may not be as easy and their general state of health may not be as good.

Finally, some dentists subscribe to the theory that wisdom teeth may push the other teeth in the mouth forward and cause crowding and misalignment. You should be aware however, that not all oral surgeons believe this to be the case.

Now however, it is important to consider the possible risks and complications involved in the removal of third molars. There are some risks/potential complications which are common to all surgical procedures however major or minor they might be. These are:

Removal of third molars is a surgical procedure and some discomfort should be expected. It is also reasonable to expect that this discomfort will be taken care of by the pain medication prescribed.
In the absence of preexisting infection it is uncommon to see an infection resulting from the removal of third molars however, there are more bacteria per square inch in the oral cavity than anywhere else in the human body and so often patients are placed on antibiotics prophylactically during the initial healing period.
Post operative swelling and bruising are both within the spectrum of normal. The exact amount of each of these varies from patient to patient as does the time required for complete resolution of these symptoms. Surgical edema is a normal consequence of surgery and also normally resolves without extraordinary measures.
It is not possible to do surgery without some bleeding but when you leave your surgeon's office you should expect that the minimal oozing you are experiencing can be easily controlled by biting on clean gauze or a tea bag. Bleeding that cannot be controlled in such a fashion warrants an immediate call to the surgeon.
and the risk of the ANESTHETIC itself.
Most wisdom teeth COULD be removed without any anesthesia at all...but that would make for a very unhappy patient and an equally unhappy doctor. For patients whose medical condition contraindicates general anesthesia, third molars can safely and effectively be removed with local anesthetic only. Local anesthestics as used in the oral surgeon's office are among the safest of drugs around and true allergic reaction to a properly administered local anesthetic is so rare as to be worthy of publication in scientific journals. Most persons prefer, however, to be "asleep" for the removal of their third molars. There
is a somewhat greater risk for this than for the use of local anesthetic alone and if this is your desire, your oral surgeon should discuss your medical history and your particular risks with you prior to your procedure. You should be aware that in the young healthy individual, those risks are often minimal and acceptable but they do exist and should be discussed with the doctor.

Finally there are some risks/complications that are unique to the removal of third molars.

The upper third molars have roots which often are separated from the maxillary sinuses by only a very thin layer of bone. Occasionally, a small communication is established between the sinus and the oral cavity when one of the upper third molars is removed. If this is the case, the normal procedure is for the area to be sutured closed, the patient to be informed of the finding, appropriate antibiotics and decongestants to be prescribed, the patient to be instructed to avoid Valsalva maneuvers (tasks which build up pressure in the sinus like nose blowing and bearing down forcefully) and the patient reappointed for followup. Most often this results in an uneventful healing period with no further treatment being required. Occasionally, the area will heal open rather than closed in which case an additional small surgical procedure will be required to close the communication.

The lower third molars often have roots that lie very near or even wrapped around the inferior alveolar nerve. This is the nerve that supplies feeling to the lip, teeth and part of the gums on each side of the mouth. Occasionally, when a lower third molar is removed, that nerve will be bumped or bruised and if so a change in sensation may be noted on that side. It is important to understand that this is a sensory nerve and does not affect the ability to move the parts of the oral cavity to which it gives sensation (feeling). In most cases, the nerve heals itself but, because nerves heal slowly, it may take six months to one year before return of normal sensation. Very rarely, the damage to the nerve is permanent. Likewise, the lingual nerve, which supplies sensation to the tongue and the tongue side of the gums often lies in close proximity to the surgical site and may be disturbed in the process of removing these lower third molars. Once again, most alterations in sensation are temporary but ocasionally the change may be permanent.

Finally, the normal precautions, risks and benefits of extraction of any tooth (which are beyond the scope of this discussion) also apply here and should be discussed with the surgeon prior to beginning any procedure.


Third Molars
Third Molars
Dry Sockets
Curriculum Vitae
Mandible Fractures

Copyright Kim E. Goldman, D.M.D. 1995, 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005

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