What Do We Mean When We Say a Tooth is Impacted?

nervous dental patient

If the oral surgeon who’s going to extract your wisdom teeth tells you one or more of them are “impacted,” that means they haven’t been able to come in normally. They might not be able to erupt, they might come in at a crazy angle, or they might get stuck in the jawbone. Whatever the cause, impacted wisdom teeth can be extremely painful, and they can also be a threat to your health. As your adult teeth develop and erupt, any tooth can become impacted – it’s just not that common. But because wisdom teeth form so much later, and are hidden for the better part of their existence, they’re much more prone to impaction than your other teeth.

How Does a Wisdom Tooth get Impacted in the First Place?

You might be asking yourself, “Did I do something to cause my tooth to become impacted?”. No; you’ve not done anything wrong. An impacted wisdom tooth is something that usually develops before you could even be aware of it. A tooth can become impacted in a few different ways:

  • It’s growing at an angle towards the back of the mouth.
  • It’s growing at an angle towards your other molars.
  • It’s growing at the right angle but doesn’t have the room to erupt (read: come in).
  • It’s trapped in your jawbone.

Soft tissue impaction – where the wisdom tooth is just trapped under the gums – is the easiest type to deal with. But partial-bony and full-bony impactions – where the tooth is stuck partially or fully within the jaw bone – are more complicated and require more involved mouth surgeries. Sometimes you may also need a dental bone graft following a wisdom tooth removal that included a full-bony impaction.

There’s a very simple answer to how a wisdom tooth becomes impacted: there’s not enough room for them to come in.

Symptoms of an Impacted Wisdom Tooth

Some impacted wisdom teeth will never result in symptoms, or will take a decade to start bothering you. That’s one of the many reasons dentists remove wisdom teeth during your teen years, before the teeth are fully rooted and developed. It’s preventative more than anything. More often than not, though, you’ll know something’s wrong. Symptoms of impacted wisdom teeth include:

  • Jaw pain, specifically at the back of your mouth
  • A sudden onset of chronic headaches
  • Swelling and throbbing gums
  • Tenderness in the area behind your molars

If you notice any of these signs and symptoms, it’s time to ask your dentist for a new round of x-rays and a referral to an oral surgeon. Leaving impacted wisdom teeth be can result in a host of health problems that put your other teeth at risk.

Dangers of an Impacted Wisdom Tooth and Why You Should See an Oral Surgeon

A partially or fully impacted wisdom tooth has the potential to cause several types of issues in your mouth that can result in permanent damage:

  • Pericoronitis: This is a fancy term for infection. Bacteria gets trapped under the flap where the tooth is trying to erupt and proliferates. This results in swelling, bleeding, tooth decay, and/or cysts.
  • Periodontitis: Gum disease. Bacteria that’s left to sit at the gum line between the teeth leads to inflammation, and eventually the gums get infected and pull away from the teeth, exposing roots and nerves.
  • Damage to other teeth: If an impacted wisdom tooth is moving at an angle, it could push your other teeth around and misalign your bite.
  • Cysts: Since your wisdom teeth develop inside little sacs in your jaw, if they’re stuck there, that sac can fill with fluid, causing infection and damaging nerves, teeth, and the jaw itself.

So, you see, the potential dangers of impacted wisdom teeth are actually pretty scary. But don’t worry – dentists and oral surgeons extract wisdom teeth every day, even impacted ones. With wisdom teeth, the earlier you get them out, the better. Why? Because mouth surgeries to remove teeth are much less painful when those teeth aren’t yet fully rooted. But even if you’re well into adulthood, if you’ve had any signs of impacted teeth and never had your wisdom teeth taken out, it’s never a bad time to remedy that and protect the health of your mouth.