They are to the mouth what tonsils are to the throat, or what your gall bladder is to your abdomen. But while tonsils or gall bladders are rarely removed unless they present a physical problem, wisdom teeth almost always have to come out. Extractions are routine and nothing to fear, but you should be informed about the procedure so you're prepared and ready to handle the recovery as efficiently as possible.
Wisdom teeth -- aka third molars -- are the teeth at the farthest most part of your upper and lower rows of teeth. The term "wisdom" has been used to characterize these teeth since the 1600s. Initially, they were called "the teeth of wisdom" and, by the 1800s, "wisdom teeth." The teeth, of course, don't make you any smarter but they tend to appear later in life than any other teeth -- mid-teens to mid-20s, typically. Presumably, a person is wiser when they have reached adulthood, resulting in the terminology [source: Dentistry & You].
Anthropologists believe wisdom teeth were useful to early man, who had a much different diet than we do today. He didn't sit down to a bowl of soup with a spoon or eat mashed potatoes with a fork. Ripping meat, grinding roots and chomping on nuts would've been more common and that would have resulted in extensive wear, making wisdom teeth quite valuable [source: Cooper]. It's also believed that wisdom teeth often come in at odd angles or remain impacted because the human jaw has become smaller with time, resulting in overcrowding [source: Cooper].
Interestingly, dentists and oral surgeons may encourage the removal of wisdom teeth even if they come in perfectly and don't crowd existing teeth. That's because it's difficult to clean these teeth due to their remote, hard-to-reach location. It's common for bacteria to build up, which can lead to infection. As a result, approximately 85 percent of the population requires the removal of their wisdom teeth [source: Cooper].
So, when should you have your wisdom teeth extracted? Generally, the sooner the better. Teeth, like trees, grow more extensive root systems as they grow and age. It will likely be easier to remove your wisdom teeth when you're younger. If the roots eventually connect with bone or even sinus tissue, the procedure will become more difficult and, potentially, much more painful [sources: WebMD; Cooper].
Wisdom tooth removal is more complex than simply pulling a tooth. It will require some level of sedation involving a local anesthetic, intravenous sedative or general anesthetic. The procedure itself usually isn't painful [source: American Association of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeons]. But after the anesthetic wears off, that could be another story. Depending on whether your wisdom teeth are impacted -- below the gum line -- cutting and stitching may be involved.