Debate over wisdom teeth removal

Do you need your wisdom teeth removed?

MINNEAPOLIS -- The story of an Eden Prairie teenager who died after going into cardiac arrest while getting her wisdom teeth out spurs an important question: Are all wisdom teeth removals necessary?

Some experts estimate 10 million wisdom teeth are taken out in the U.S. each year.

These back-of-the-mouth molars are often removed because they can cause infections, cavities or bone damage if they aren't positioned correctly.

But a 2007 article in the American Journal of Public Health calls the extraction of wisdom teeth a "public health hazard," claiming only 20 percent of wisdom teeth cause medical issues and deeming "two-thirds of all third-molar extractions are unnecessary."

Dr. Leon Assael, dean of the U of M School of Dentistry, agrees with some of that article, but he says it fails to look at the long-term hazards of most wisdom teeth.

"In a given year, 20 percent may be causing a problem. That is true. But over the course of years they will cause a problem in the overwhelming amount of patients," said Assael.

He pointed to another study from Scandinavia where they don't pull wisdom teeth until they cause issues. He said that study showed about 90 percent of wisdom teeth had to be pulled by the time the patients in the study were 50 years-old.

"I feel that there is good evidence to support the elective removal of wisdom teeth," he said.

According to The American Association of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeons, "Wisdom teeth that are completely erupted and functional, painless, cavity-free, disease-free and surrounded by healthy gum tissue may not require extraction."

Dr. Assael says that scenario is very rare.

Assael recommends doing patients and parents do their homework and ask questions of their dentist or oral surgeon. Look for evidence-based answers to the questions. He says if the questions have not been answered thoroughly, that is the time to pause, get more information or seek a second opinion.


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