Teenagers prepare for wisdom teeth removal

Kirsten Buchanan

Infographic by Joanne Lee.

For many teenagers, getting their wisdom teeth out is a quick, if not painless, operation. However, for one 17-year-old Maryland girl, the simple procedure turned fatal. Last April Jenny Olenick died during the routine surgery.

Although complications like Olenick’s are rare, some teenagers are still nervous about going through the surgery. Senior Nhu Vu was not pleased when she heard she was growing extra teeth in her mouth.

“I have four wisdom teeth, but they don’t hurt or anything,” Vu said. “Still, I probably will have to have them taken out. I asked [my dentist] if I really had to get them out. He was like, ‘Well, it’s going to be uncomfortable in your mouth.’”

Medical doctor and dentist Adam Andrews said most people’s wisdom teeth begin to grow during their teenage years. These third molars, wisdom teeth, are a set of four extra teeth that grow behind regular molars. Although they are not always a problem, Andrews said many people prefer to have them extracted.

“There is generalized agreement in the medical and dental profession that the removal of third molar teeth is always appropriate when there is evidence of pathological changes” such as infection or tumors, Andrews said. “There is also generalized agreement that third molar teeth that are completely erupted and functional, painless [and] free of cares … may not require extraction.”

Our ancestors had room for the extra teeth in their mouth, but as humans evolved, third molars became a problem when their jaws became smaller. Andrews said there is a statistically significant increase in wisdom teeth problems after age 25, causing many teens to go through with surgery.

“It was more of a choice on our part because the future problems that having wisdom teeth could make could be worse than getting them out and not having a problem later,” Eddington said. “It was my first surgery.”

Andrews said the type of sedation used in third molar removal varies because of doctors’ and patients’ preferences. He said the most common method is to put them to sleep using intravenous sedation or general anesthesia.

“The only thing I was really nervous for was the anesthetic,” Eddington said. “I didn’t know what that felt like but I don’t mind it now. I was just completely out of it and it was like sleeping, basically. I don’t remember anything.”

Many teenagers are also anxious because they worry about pain or possible complications. However, Andrews said both are uncommon. For two to five percent of people, the blood clot in their mouth becomes dislodged and causes severe pain after surgery, a condition called dry sockets, according to WebMD.

“There are many myths about the prevention of dry sockets, but the fact is that nobody really knows what causes them,” Andrews said. “Fortunately, the treatment for this process is to place a sedative dressing — medicated gauze — in the socket and wait a few days for the process to resolve. This treatment probably slows the healing process by a few days but makes the patient much more comfortable until the dry socket resolves.”

Less common complications include permanent nerve damage, jaw and tooth fractures and brain tissue infections, according to WebMD. The chance of problems after the surgery and pain of surgery makes some teens hesitant to go through extraction.

Only around 12 percent of wisdom teeth that aren’t taken out lead to infections or damage to other teeth, which is about the same as cases of appendicitis. However, doctors never recommend people have their appendix removed just to prevent appendicitis, questioning wisdom teeth removal.

Eddington did not suffer from any complications or even major pain after his surgery, though. Andrews said Eddington’s case is typical.

“Removal of four wisdom teeth should take less than 45 minutes under most circumstances,” Andrews said. “I cannot speak for every oral and maxillofacial surgeon, but I have always enjoyed removing third molars.”

Complete healing of the hole takes around a month. Despite the minor risk of the surgery, Andrews said there is still some anxiety that many teenagers experience, like in Vu’s case. She felt disappointed and fearful of the potential pain when her dentist reccomended the surgery for her.

“I’m scared because everyone who has had them taken out has said it hurts afterwards. [with four] it’s going to hurt really bad,” Vu said. “If it was my choice I would not get them taken out becasue I can’t take pain or needles. My parents are kind of making me.”
By Kirsten Buchanan