• Soong-Ryong Jung (David) , DDS, MS, PhD

What Does Wisdom Tooth Surgery Have To Do With Our Tastebuds?

Gaining wisdom teeth is often a rite of passage that lands you biologically into the world of adulthood. Those third sets of molars are the last of your adult teeth to emerge and are usually spotted or felt coming in at around between the ages of 17-25. This makes some sense, since our brains stop developing at the latter half of the age bracket. What is interesting about the procedure that removes affected wisdom teeth happens to the rest of the mouth afterwards. What happens to the rest of our teeth, gums, and tongue when we get wisdom tooth surgery? Are there any changes in the area that are worth noting? Are there little known areas in the mouth which the removal of wisdom teeth can affect?


The Wisdom Tooth and our Ancient Ancestors


Wisdom teeth erupt in the mouth in the early part of our adult years, usually taking up space behind the upper and lower jaws. This served a purpose for our ancient ancestors, back when our species were hunter-gatherer groups. They had no eating utensils in that period and had wider jaws as part of their natural characteristics. The third set of molars gave them extra grinding power to eat more coarse food, including things like uncooked meat and plants.


Our ancestors had no problems with their jaw accommodating to wisdom teeth, but all of that changed when we moved away from a hunter-gatherer society and settled down to farm. Their offspring came with more narrow jaw lines, in response to this new agricultural lifestyle that brought about a softer diet. These lifestyle changes combined with possible evolutionary and epigenetic causes, lead to a result of smaller jaw sizes in the modern human.


However, just because our mouths developed to match our new diets, that did not mean that our wisdom teeth stopped existing. Which leads to today’s dental and orthodontic issues, impacted wisdom teeth.


When Our Wisdom Teeth Get Impacted


Because our mouths no longer have room for those third molars, they try to emerge behind the rest of our teeth on what little gum space is available to them. And if you have seen anyone trying to squeeze in a crowded bus, you know what happens when one-too-many people try to squeeze in that limited space. These wisdom teeth will often come in sideways, crowding the rest of the teeth in the jaws, and possibly knocking them out of alignment. And that is only the lightest outcome of that type of crowding.


At its worst, impacted wisdom teeth can damage the nearby second pair of molars and can create a constant pressure on the surrounding nerves. This leads to painful irritation, as well as open wounds that can easily create an opening for infection. Even if it doesn’t come in crooked, the extra teeth take up so much space in the jaw that it is harder to brush and floss at the back of the mouth. This leads to an increased risk of cavities and gingivitis.


That’s why it is common practice for orthodontists and oral surgeons to perform a wisdom tooth removal. They want to get rid of the potential source of infection and future pain by beating it to the punch.


What about the after effects? After all, the inside of your mouth has more than your teeth in it.


According to a recent study at the University of Pennsylvania, it may just change the way you taste for the better.


How Wisdom Tooth Surgery Affects your Sense of Taste


A typical short-term effect of wisdom tooth removal is a loss of taste. And it makes some sense. When you come out of oral surgery, your mouth is super sensitive to pain. The last thing that you care about at the moment is what you can taste. You are lucky enough to even eat during recovery. But what about the long term? What happens to our taste buds after we recover from the extraction?


Senior Author Richard L. Doty, director of the Smell and Taste center at Penn and his co-author, a third-year student from the Pennsylvania School of Dental Medicine, Dane Kim, pondered the question. So, they looked at their database of patients, which have records that track back to 20 years ago. Over 1200 people took part in the study regarding wisdom tooth surgery and sensory reactions to specific stimuli. They evaluated 891 people who had gotten the surgery, and 364 who had not. Then, they tested each patient by asking them to swish a solution that had a specific taste: sour, sweet, salty, and bitter. After compiling the data, they found an interesting series of conclusions.


  • For starters, all women, who either had the surgery or not, outperformed the men in the group.

  • Another interesting thing that was found in the study was that there was a correlation between a loss of taste and aging.

  • The last, and more relevant bit of information they found was that most people who had wisdom tooth surgery had an increased 3 -10% taste sensitivity compared to the control group.


This set of information, while not exactly the most shocking or groundbreaking, at least gives us a starting point to a better understanding of how our mouth and sense of taste works.


Why Does Wisdom Tooth Surgery Increase Taste Sensitivity?


This is the question that is running through the minds of the people who are paying attention to the results. While some people react to this information with a dismissive attitude at the small percentage, it piques the curiosity of both olfactory and dental scientists alike. What changes in anatomy does wisdom tooth surgery cause this sort of outcome?


The publishers of the study have a few running hypotheses that will require further research.


The first that Professor Doty has mentioned during an interview was, “That nerves supplying taste buds at the back of the tongue work harder after the nerves that supply taste buds at the front get injured during the procedure.”


Second is the idea that the entire mouth just increases sensitivity as during the recovery process since the damaged area is repairing itself with new nerve connections.


But that is as far as the researchers are willing to comment on the matter.


Conclusion


While wisdom tooth removal is not likely to suddenly make a patient an epicurean soon, it has the potential to bring us closer to understanding how our nervous system responds to trauma, as well as changes in its immediate environment.


This too was the concluding statement of Professor Doty, “The effects are subtle but may provide insight into how long-term improvement in neural function can result from altering the environment in which nerves propagate.”


Maybe a neurologist could weigh in and take the study further. Who knows? Either way, this has potential to help us understand more about ourselves and how our bodies function.


For more information on wisdom teeth removal, check out Dr. Jung.

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