Saturday, January 7, 2012

How much "wisdom" is there in wisdom-tooth removal?

When I was 4, I had my tonsils removed. When my son, now 23, was 4, he had his tonsils removed, too. And, for good measure, his adenoids.

But when my daughter turned 4 three years later and was suffering bout after bout of strep throat, I found that tonsil removal no longer was common. "We've found the tonsils do more good than harm," the ENT doctor said, and continued to prescribe antibiotics. "Taking them out was kind of a fad for a while."

Fast-forward 11 years, and another ENT finally agreed to remove Caroline's tonsils, which -- sorry to be gross -- were so diseased and decayed that they crumbled in his glove.

On Friday, Caroline had all four wisdom teeth removed. And today, I'm wondering: When the heck did wisdom-teeth removal become as common as a tonsillectomy was in 1967? And why?

I grew two wisdom teeth and still have one, having lost the other to a cavity only three years ago. My husband has all but one of his, and our siblings and most of my friends still sport intact wisdom teeth. My son, in fact, still has his; neither his dentist or orthodontist recommended that he have them removed, and they're not causing him any trouble. And honestly, Caroline's wisdom teeth hadn't caused her problems, either ... but the oral surgeon warned us that they could conceivably cause her teeth to move, so they'd be best yanked out.

We went along with it, but today I'm left wondering: Did we do the right thing?

Note: I'm not intending to criticize the oral surgeon; he's a nice guy who merely made a recommendation. We're the ones who chose to follow it. I'm second-guessing myself: Did we have them removed mostly because everyone else seems to be taking that route? Or was it, in fact, really necessary?

According to, wisdom teeth can be left alone when they're fully erupted, positioned correctly and allowing the person to bite properly, and able to be cleaned as part of daily hygiene practices. Much of the time, though, that doesn't happen, apparently, and the owner of the teeth is left with all sorts of problems: pain, movement of other teeth, or wisdom teeth that become impacted, or trapped.

So here's what I don't get. Were generations of people somehow immune to wisdom-tooth problems, or did they simply suffer through the issues -- and walk around with painful, gross teeth and jaws -- because removal wasn't as common?

My husband put it this way: "It seems like you could compare it to removing a healthy body part because it could develop cancer later." But according, again, to, many oral surgeons advocate removal when patients are teenagers or young adults -- before problems erupt -- because young people heal faster than old folks.

I've talked to a lot of parents whose teenagers have had their wisdom teeth removed, and the kids seem to bounce back well; chances are in a couple of days, Caroline will be fine and I won't be questioning why we made the choice we made.

But for now, she's swollen and vomiting and in pain and I'm wondering -- as parents have since time began -- did I make the best decision I possibly could have for my child?

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