The Lowdown on Those Lowdown, Dirty Little… Wisdom Teeth

A visit to the dentist is something that intimidates many people today. Yet isn't it even more frightening to contemplate how humans took care of their mouths before our current dental technology, with all its advanced tools and drugs? One common procedure that many people must undergo is the removal of wisdom teeth, or third molars. These are the last teeth to emerge from your gums during your late teens, or "age of wisdom," which gives them their name. I assume that designation was determined by a preteen. At any rate, we might wonder, why do we have wisdom teeth at all if they need to be removed so often? 

Human beings once had tougher diets. As our diets became softer and more refined, we no longer needed jaws for strenuous chewing. The jaws failed to develop, leaving little room for third molars. Also, due to the mixing of gene pools, some adults never develop wisdom teeth at all, while some end up with more teeth than jaw. Perhaps in the distant future, we won't have to worry about them at all. Of course, who knows what would replace that angst in the universal balance. At least wisdom teeth are familiar foes.

A main issue with wisdom teeth, either partially or fully erupted (emerged through the gums), is that they can be very difficult to clean effectively. Impacted wisdom teeth, which are trapped in the jawbone and fail to emerge as straight, fully functioning teeth, can lead to infection. In addition, impacted wisdom teeth can impose excess pressure on the adjacent teeth and cause them to become misaligned. Unfortunately, orthodontic reasons often are not validated by insurance companies, who will usually only cover the extraction of diseased teeth. An alternative that won't drain your pockets too badly may be to consult with oral surgeons from a university school of dentistry.

That is where I found myself one morning, avoiding visual confrontation with the needle that would facilitate my cooperation in the surgery. Three options exist for getting someone through the extraction of their wisdom teeth. As a doctor described to me, the first option is local anesthesia, which sounds too limited as you will still be clearly aware of the drill and everything else going on. Another option is the opposite, the blanket darkness of general anesthesia. However, apparently this takes longer to recover from and may leave the person with nausea. Turned off by these extremes, I opted for what Buddha no doubt would have agreed to be the Middle Way: IV sedation, where I could be more in control of my faculties, but I would have all the cognizance of a girl who, at a fraction of their weight and metabolism, consumed enough drinks to intoxicate those corpulent (as sold in stores) Buddha figures. 

Many people may not even remember the procedure, but I felt fairly conscious, although certainly sedated. Perhaps it was just my over-analytical mind raring to regain its usual control. I remember hearing the drill and not caring too much, although suggesting headphones beforehand certainly would have been a welcome alternative. In my weird in-between state I heard the conversation around me - it wasn't too colorful or bawdy, which probably left me less entertained but also less concerned. I could also recount the order in which all four of my wisdom teeth came out. Although certainly my usual sense of time was distorted, as the hour went by in the flashes of blurry daydreams, reality set in as afterwards all I could think about was getting home and crawling into bed for an extended nap.

After the procedure, you can expect pain, which can thankfully be mostly alleviated through medication. More bothersome in my case was the awkwardness of swelling and difficulty opening my mouth. Thankfully, this only really lasts a few days. What lasts longer is the vein of a heroin addict, so five days later when I went to my side tutoring gig, I opted to wear long sleeves despite the heat in the chance my little fourth-grader would notice the bruise and wasn't familiar with wisdom teeth or IV's. As she'll talk about anything to avoid math, I didn't want to get into it.

Essential to a smooth recovery are food intake and preservation of nutrients.  Unfortunately, often it is difficult to eat due to the limited degree of mouth-opening and initial unwillingness to let food touch those fresh wounds. In my first days of healing I developed a whole new appreciation for cream of wheat, which provides many nutrients including iron, mashed potatoes, and yogurt (without fruit pieces) which provides calcium.  

Overall, the procedure was nothing worse than I expected, although it is certainly something I am happy to have behind me. The most rewarding part for me was a few days off with an excuse to do nothing. And if you're one of the many people awaiting this procedure - for most people experience at least one wisdom tooth - don't procrastinate, for the roots of wisdom teeth only get deeper as you get older. Unlike putting roots down with relationships, homes, and the like, deepening roots of wisdom teeth is not something to aim for! For all those with lingering third molars that may have to be confronted eventually, take heart in the silver lining of a few days off and modern medical advances, and stock up on mashed potatoes.

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