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Where's the Wisdom in Wisdom Teeth?

For many people, wisdom teeth may seem to be misnamed. Often these teeth are troublemakers that decide to turn crooked, refuse to grow in completely, or become misshapen.

Also called third molars, wisdom teeth are the rearmost teeth on each side of your top and bottom jaws. They arrive between ages 14 and 18 - the "age of wisdom."

Because these teeth arrive last, they often enter a jaw that is already crowded. As a result, the last teeth in usually don't get a seat on your gums. And if they do manage to squeeze in, often little or none of each tooth rises above the gums, becoming what dentists call impacted.

Impacted teeth don't always cause problems, but it is important to visit your dentist regularly so that he or she can monitor their arrival.

The American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry says if you do need to have your wisdom teeth removed, it's best to do that before age 20. This is the best time because the roots are only about one-third formed and the surrounding bone is generally softer.

Keep your semiannual dental appointments because even before wisdom teeth emerge, they show up on X-rays, and by the late teens dentists can tell if there's going to be enough room and if they're going to cause problems.

If you do need them out, here's what the American Academy of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery says you can expect:

  • You will be put under local anesthesia for the surgery.

  • It takes about one hour to remove four wisdom teeth. Usually the procedure is performed on an out patient basis.

  • You will spend some time in recovery before going home.

  • You will need a companion to drive you home.

  • You will have some bleeding and will have to bite gently on gauze for a few hours after surgery.

  • You will have swelling for the first 48 to 72 hours, but ice packs will help keep it down.

  • You may have some skin discoloration during healing, first black-blue, then turning yellow, and disappearing in a few days.

  • You may have some pain for several days following surgery. Your health care provider will prescribe appropriate pain medication.

In most cases, you can resume your normal activities within a few days.