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Painful Predicament: Why Do Wisdom Teeth Hurt So Much?

What are wisdom teeth and why do they hurt so much? Learn about the evolutionary causes and how to stop wisdom tooth pain.

By Jake Parks
Nov 8, 2023 4:00 PMNov 8, 2023 4:49 PM
A man with toothache, wisdom tooth pain, painful area highlighted in red
(Credit: staras/Shutterstock)

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For many, the mere mention of "wisdom teeth" conjures up memories of sore jaws, throbbing pain, and soft food diets. But what's the real deal behind these notoriously late-blooming teeth, and why do they cause so much trouble?

Let’s dive into the science behind the pain and unravel the mystery of wisdom teeth.

What Are Wisdom Teeth?

Wisdom teeth, known as third molars, are the last teeth to develop and appear in the mouth. According to Cleveland Clinic, wisdom teeth typically emerge between the ages of 17 to 25, a time traditionally associated with the onset of maturity and the attainment of "wisdom" — hence the name.

For our ancestors, wisdom teeth were essential. With coarse diets of raw plant material and meat, teeth would often wear down or fall out, so these additional molars at the back of the mouth helped spread the load when it comes to grinding down food.

But as human diets and lifestyles evolved, so did our jaws. Over time, with the advent of cooking and food processing, our jaws have become smaller. Consequently, for many modern humans, there’s simply not enough space in our mouths for wisdom teeth to grow properly, which can lead to major problems.


Read More: Why Do Humans Have Wisdom Teeth That Need to Be Removed?


Why Do Wisdom Teeth Hurt?

There are several reasons why wisdom teeth can be a source of pain and discomfort:

Impaction

Often, there isn't enough room for wisdom teeth to grow properly. When this happens, they can become trapped, or "impacted," unable to fully break through the gums. This can cause severe pain and tenderness.

Infection and Inflammation

As wisdom teeth struggle to break through the gums, they can create a flap of gum tissue that traps food and bacteria. Called pericoronitis, this can lead to infections, swelling, and gum disease, resulting in significant pain.

Crowding

If a wisdom tooth does manage to break through, it can push against neighboring teeth, leading to aches and pains that radiate throughout the jaw, as well as potential alignment issues.

Cysts

In some cases, a sac next to the wisdom tooth can become filled with fluid, forming a cyst. This can damage bones, teeth, and gums, and it may even harden into a tumor if left untreated.

If you are experiencing wisdom tooth pain, be sure to seek the advice of a certified medical professional.


Read More: Your Life in a Tooth — What Our Teeth Say About Our Health


What Causes Wisdom Teeth to Grow?

Like all other teeth, wisdom teeth are a part of our evolutionary heritage. Our different types of teeth—incisors, canines, premolars, and molars—have specific timelines and triggers for growth.

Genetics

If your parents had wisdom teeth, it's likely (though not certain) you will too. Some populations or families might not develop all four wisdom teeth, or any at all.

Hormonal Changes

The surge of hormones during the late teenage years can stimulate the growth and emergence of wisdom teeth.

Evolutionary Residue

Early human diets required more grinding when chewing, thus the need for an additional set of molars. Although wisdom teeth are less useful today, they still grow because the genetic instructions for their development remain embedded in our DNA.


Read More: Human Evolution Isn't Over Yet


How to Stop Wisdom Tooth Pain

If you're experiencing wisdom tooth pain, it's essential to consult with a dentist. They can provide you with a clear picture of what's happening and recommend the best course of action. However, here are a few general temporary remedies and home treatments for wisdom tooth pain:

Over-the-Counter Pain Relievers

Non-prescription pain relievers, such as ibuprofen (Advil) or acetaminophen (Tylenol), can help reduce both pain and inflammation related to wisdom teeth.

Oral Gels

Over-the-counter oral gels serve as topical analgesics that can temporarily numb the area, offering relief from persistent wisdom tooth pain.

Saltwater Rinse

Gargling with warm salt water several times a day can reduce inflammation and sooth soreness related to wisdom teeth, as well as help fend off infections.

Cold Compress

Applying a cold pack to the affected area for 15 to 20 minutes at a time can help reduce swelling and numb the pain associated with wisdom teeth.

Extraction

If the pain persists or if you suspect an infection, it's essential to see a dentist. They can provide you with tailored advice and prescribe stronger painkillers or antibiotics. In many cases, the best solution might be to have a dentist or oral surgeon remove the problematic wisdom tooth or teeth altogether.

Wisdom teeth, while a fascinating evolutionary holdover, can often be more trouble than they are worth. If you're experiencing pain or suspect issues with your wisdom teeth, it's crucial to see a dental professional. Remember, as with nearly all health matters, early intervention can prevent more significant pain down the road.


Read More: 5 Vestigial Body Parts Found in Humans

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