Getting Wise About Wisdom Teeth

Wisdom teeth surgery is definitely a box to check off on the “American Teenage Experience” bucket list. My 17-year-old sister had the operation a few weeks ago—her rollercoaster of emotions included steep hills and loop-de-loops. On the way home from the oral surgeon, she blasted the 2016 hit single “Sweatshirt” by Jacob Sartorius and videoed herself singing to my mother. Once home, she repeatedly told me that she had “Kylie Jenner lips,” further proving that the rollercoaster transported her back to the mid-2010s. She soon realized she couldn’t swallow her apple juice, had a meltdown and decided it was time for a nap. 

As her personal nurse, I peeled off her socks, adjusted her ice packs and tucked her into bed. Luckily she was able to clock out of existence for the next several hours. As I shut her bedroom door, I wondered, “how does wisdom teeth surgery work, anyways?”

Google had plenty of answers. I am glad that I didn’t dive into the details before having my own teeth removed because it was pretty gnarly. However, I found the economics of wisdom tooth surgery to be even nastier than the operation.

woman doctor in scrubs Photo by Artur Tumasjan from Unsplash

Dentist Jay Friedman explains that only one-third of wisdom teeth surgeries in the United States are necessary to stop infections or other medical issues. Most third molars grow in normally like any other teeth, but the majority of American dentists and oral surgeons decide to remove them anyway. 

About 10 million wisdom teeth are removed in the US each year, and these surgeries cost over a combined $3 billion annually. According to Friedman, “eliminating these extractions would reduce the oral and maxillofacial surgeon’s annual income by $347,486, resulting in annual savings to patients of more than $1.9 billion." With an extra $347,486 laying around, you could buy about 4 Tesla Xs with some money to spare. That sleek, spaceship-looking SUV does give off “rich dentist” vibes (especially in the color white).

money money unsplash American dentists and oral surgeons are like greedy tooth fairies—they snatch your third molars along with a hefty sum from you and/or your insurance company. These teeth Tinkerbells don’t leave a quarter under your pillow as an insulting little rebate. 

Dentists in the United Kingdom stopped the proactive removal of wisdom teeth around 1998. Petsko explains that they treat wisdom teeth like the appendix—it isn’t removed until a problem occurs. 

I had my own wisdom teeth removed about two years ago. I spent about an hour sitting on my kitchen floor on that dreadful day, crying as my other family members tiptoed around me in watchful silence. My mom force-fed me a banana with peanut butter, flying the fork airplane into my swollen mouth between sobs. I don’t know if my third molars genuinely needed to be extracted, but that money could have been spent on an actual airplane ticket to somewhere more enjoyable than the dentist’s office.

airplanes window view of sky during golden hour Photo by Eva Darron from Unsplash

My resentment towards the American oral surgery industry is pretty intense at this point. Where would I be if I still had my wisdom teeth? If you haven’t had your third molars removed yet, good luck. I just hope you have nice insurance.