July 14th, 2008
11:34 AM ET

Losing my wisdom (teeth)

By Saundra Young

CNN Medical Senior Producer


I was expecting pain.  I had heard the stories - as friends, family and colleagues began weighing in, it seemed everybody had one and couldn't wait to share it with me!  The thing is, theirs were all stories of young teenagers and twenty-somethings, and mine, was, well, let's just say mine was a tale of a much, much older woman who was having her wisdom teeth extracted!


My new dentist was surprised to learn I still had my third molars at my age.  They had to come out he insisted. There was decay, and some bone and tissue damage.


And then came the stories  - of faces swollen beyond recognition, and unbelievable pain.  I was warned: "Hey, this is oral surgery. This is serious business." 


I was warned about a horribly painful phenomenon called "dry socket," the most common complication after surgery.  This occurs when the blood clot in the socket where the tooth has been pulled comes out  - theoretically if you do something like sip or suck on a straw - exposing bone and nerves.   I was told I needed to avoid dry socket at all costs.


So I did what any serious journalist in search of detailed information does: I popped online and got a crash course on wisdom tooth extractions.  (I even watched a video of an extraction on YouTube.)


It seems I really was something of a freak! In most people, wisdom teeth come in between the ages of 15 and 25. Often they’re taken out almost immediately.  Most oral health specialists recommend early removal in order to eliminate problems down the line such as an impacted tooth, trapped within the gum, which can damage or destroy the second molar, as mine apparently did. 


According to the American Academy of General Dentistry, an impacted wisdom tooth is the most common developmental ailment.  That's because they're the teeth most likely to decay because they're so difficult to reach and clean.


I found out there are some pretty serious problems tied to impacted third molars, including  bacteria and plaque build-up, cysts or tumors, infection, and jaw and gum disease.  And I was well on my way to some of these problems.  My surgeon and I couldn't understand why none of my former dentists suggested taking them out!


Maybe it’s because I never had any major symptoms.  Perhaps I'm now making up for lost time.  The surgery went well, but I'm in pain.  Of  course the painkillers help.  There's been swelling and I've been icing my jaw for days now.  I'm on antibiotics to ward off infection.    So I've spent the last three days popping pills, taking it easy and eating soft foods like mashed potatoes and scrambled eggs.  Eating hurts! 


All in all, it wasn't as bad as I thought.  I'm feeling pretty good although  today - Day 3 - is the day the major swelling is supposed to kick in, according to my dentist.  And here's something else to look forward to: Because he did only one side (top and bottom), more surgery is in my future.  I think I'm too old for this!  Or am I?


Am I truly that much of an anomaly, or are there plenty of you out there whose wisdom teeth were removed much later in life, successfully and without much fanfare?


Editor's Note: Medical news is a popular but sensitive subject rooted in science. We receive many comments on this blog each day; not all are posted. Our hope is that much will be learned from the sharing of useful information and personal experiences based on the medical and health topics of the blog. We encourage you to focus your comments on those medical and health topics and we appreciate your input. Thank you for your participation.


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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.