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Blue Sky Science: Why do we have wisdom teeth?

Molly Torinus

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Why do we have wisdom teeth?

Wisdom teeth are the third set of permanent molars that typically come in between the ages of 17 and 25. Some people don’t form them anymore, and a lot of people that do need to have wisdom teeth taken out.

The theory is that years ago, before we had fire to cook food with, we ate a lot more grains and hard foods and needed more molar surface to grind that food. As we’ve evolved, our lower jaws have gotten smaller, and the space for wisdom teeth has reduced.

Typically people have four wisdom teeth, but some have had as many as seven. Others never develop any wisdom teeth.

Some people with four wisdom teeth have them all come in, and they fit and function just fine. Those are lucky people, because it’s pretty rare.

Because of the smaller mandible size, a lot of people don’t have room for wisdom teeth to come in. Bone or the tissue of neighboring teeth can block wisdom teeth. When teeth aren’t able to come in all the way, they can cause infection, pain and other issues.

Taking a panoramic X-ray, a big picture, can show how teeth are developing. We can see if the teeth are going to fit in a patient’s mouth. If it looks like they’re going to cause troubles, a patient is sent to the oral surgeon to get their wisdom teeth out.

About Blue Sky Science

Blue Sky Science is a collaboration of the Wisconsin State Journal and the Morgridge Institute for Research. The questions are primarily posed by visitors attending Discovery Building events.

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