Two teens have died recently from complications of wisdom teeth extraction, and now experts are saying that the entire process may be unnecessary. Future generations of teenagers could be spared weeks of Vicodin and milkshakes — and worse.
According to ABC, 17-year-old Jenny Olenick died in April of oxygen deprivation during wisdom teeth surgery; her parents are suing the oral surgeon and anesthesiologist. And 14-year-old Ben Ellis died in December, the day after his wisdom teeth were extracted. Now experts say that the surgery, which has been linked to such disturbing side effects as "brain tissue infections," may not be worth the risks in many cases. Retired dentist Jay Friedman wrote in the American Journal of Public Health,
Third-molar surgery is a multibillion-dollar industry that generates significant income for the dental profession. It is driven by misinformation and myths that have been exposed before but that continue to be promulgated by the profession. At least two thirds of these extractions, associated costs, and injuries are unnecessary, constituting a silent epidemic of [physician-induced] injury that afflicts tens of thousands of people with lifelong discomfort and disability.
Removing wisdom teeth is supposed to prevent infections later on, but such infections are only about as common as appendicitis — and as ABC points out, doctors don't go around doing precautionary appendectomies. Wisdom teeth surgery, though, is currently a rite of passage for American youth — and as anyone who's had it done can tell you, an extremely unpleasant one. I remember the terrifying video I had to watch beforehand, detailing all the ways the surgery could go wrong (bone chips entering my brain was my favorite one). And I remember the recurrent infections that persisted for months afterward, necessitating repeated courses of antibiotics that, of course, caused their own problems (yeast infections). I'm now wisdom-tooth-free, which I was always convinced was a good thing, especially since my dentist basically implied that without the surgery my molars would one day protrude through my eyeballs. Now I question whether I needed to go through that at all.
It seems unlikely that wisdom tooth extraction will be abolished anytime soon — teens will probably have to go through that bloody rite of passage for a little longer. But given that its effects can sometimes be much worse than a few days on the couch with an icepack on your face, let's hope dentists take a hard look at whether it's really necessary.
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