Q Why do we have wisdom teeth?

— Molly Torinus

A Dr. Laura Tills, dentist at River Place Dental, Monona, Wis.:

Wisdom teeth are the third set of permanent molars that typically come in between the ages of 17 and 25. Some people don’t form them anymore, and a lot of people who do form wisdom teeth need to have them taken out.

The theory is that years ago, before we had fire to cook food with, we ate a lot more grains and hard foods and needed more molar surface to grind that food. As we’ve evolved, our lower jaws have gotten smaller, and there’s less space for wisdom teeth.

Typically people have four wisdom teeth, but some have had as many as seven. Others never develop any wisdom teeth.

Because of the smaller mandible size, a lot of people don’t have room for wisdom teeth to come in. Bone or the tissue of neighboring teeth can block wisdom teeth. When teeth aren’t able to come in all the way, they can cause infection, pain and other problems.

A panoramic X-ray shows how teeth are developing and if they’ll fit in a patient’s mouth. If it looks like they’re going to cause troubles, the patient is sent to an oral surgeon to remove wisdom teeth.

Blue Sky Science is a collaboration of the Wisconsin State Journal and the Morgridge Institute for Research.

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