The human body can be very mysterious. What is that thing that hangs down in the back of our mouth and what is it for? Why is there a ridge between our nose and mouth? Why are our ears such a peculiar shape? One mystery which, for many people, can be a problem, concerns wisdom teeth. What are they for and why do they have such a pretentious name?


Wisdom teeth, our third set of molars, have been with us for tens of millions of years, long before we walked upright. Pre-human, large-jawed primates had a diet of difficult-to-chew foods like leaves, roots, nuts, and raw meat. Those primates who were lucky enough to have extra teeth had a double advantage. Not only were the extra teeth helpful in grinding coarse foods, but all that grinding would excessively wear teeth, and having a few extra teeth turned out to be a good thing. Over time, the third set of molars became standard equipment on humans.

Origin of the Name

Wisdom teeth got their name because of the age at which most people get their third set of molars. The first set of molars appears around the age of six, with the second set coming in around the age of 12. The third set of molars usually arrives between the ages of 17 and 21, an age which allegedly brought with it some level of wisdom. (Anyone with a 17-year-old could argue this point.)

Wisdom Teeth Today

Wisdom teeth are considered a vestigial body part, or something we have but no longer need—like an appendix or a VHS recorder. Over time, our jaws have become much smaller, and yet wisdom teeth attempt to force their way into our mouths, and that’s when these unnecessary guests become a problem.

Not everyone gets wisdom teeth, but for those who do, it’s possible to get from one to four teeth. Because, in most people’s mouths, there is no room for extra teeth, wisdom teeth are often blocked by other molars, forcing them to grow sideways, partially emerge, or get trapped inside the gums and jawbone.

Problem Prevention

Wisdom teeth actually start forming in children around the age of 10. Parents of children in their early teens should be sure to schedule regular dental visits. Your dentist can monitor your child’s wisdom teeth while they are forming, and can address potential problems. Extraction is easier before the roots are fully formed, and patients in their late teens experience very few problems. It’s also very possible your child will not get wisdom teeth, or they’ll come in with room to spare, and your dentist can also provide this happy information.

The important thing is to be proactive in your child’s oral care. Keeping track of developing wisdom teeth in early teen years will save your children from a lot of pain and save you from a much larger expense down the road.