Impacted Wisdom Teeth

Impacted wisdom teeth happen when your third molars become partially or fully trapped in your gums or jawbone. This can lead to a number of oral health problems, including infection, tooth decay and gum disease. Surgical removal is often recommended as treatment for impacted wisdom teeth.

Overview

Wisdom teeth that don't erupt from the gums properly are referred to as impacted wisdom teeth.
A partially impacted wisdom tooth covered by gum tissue.

What are impacted wisdom teeth?

Wisdom teeth — also called third molars — are the last set of teeth that grow in. They usually erupt (break through your gums) between the ages of 17 and 25. Sometimes, wisdom teeth erupt in alignment with your other teeth and don’t cause any problems. Other times, they become either partially or fully trapped in your gums or jawbone. This is referred to as impaction. Impacted wisdom teeth can cause a variety of oral health problems, including cavities, gum disease and infection.

Fully impacted wisdom teeth, partially impacted wisdom teeth and non-impacted wisdom teeth: What’s the difference?

Fully impacted wisdom teeth aren’t visible. They’re completely hidden underneath your gums. A partially impacted wisdom tooth is slightly visible because part of it has erupted. Non-impacted wisdom teeth have erupted and are completely visible above your gum line. It’s important to note that non-impacted wisdom teeth can still cause problems.

Soft tissue impaction vs. hard tissue impaction

You might hear your dentist use the terms “soft tissue impaction” and “hard tissue impaction.” Soft tissue impaction means your tooth has erupted from your jawbone but hasn’t broken through your gums. Hard tissue impaction means your tooth is still completely covered by your gums and jawbone.

What are the different types of impacted wisdom teeth?

There are four types of impacted wisdom teeth. Each type matches with the positioning of your tooth:

  • Mesial impaction is the most common type. It occurs when your wisdom tooth is angled toward the front of your mouth.
  • Distal impaction, the rarest type, happens when your wisdom tooth is angled toward the back of your mouth.
  • Vertical impaction is when your wisdom tooth is in the correct position for eruption, but it’s still trapped beneath your gums.
  • Horizontal impaction is when your wisdom tooth is lying completely on its side, trapped beneath your gums. Horizontally impacted wisdom teeth are often painful because they place excess pressure on the teeth in front of them.

How common are impacted wisdom teeth?

Impacted wisdom teeth are extremely common. According to the American Academy of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeons, 90% of people have at least one impacted wisdom tooth.

How do impacted wisdom teeth affect my oral health?

Impacted wisdom teeth can cause pain, infection and damage to other teeth. Wisdom teeth are also difficult to clean. As a result, they’re more prone to tooth decay and gum disease.

Can impacted wisdom teeth cause headaches?

Yes. In some cases, impacted wisdom teeth can cause radiating pain in your jaw, face and head.

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Symptoms and Causes

What are the symptoms of impacted wisdom teeth?

Sometimes, impacted wisdom teeth don’t cause any noticeable problems. Other times, symptoms may develop suddenly or gradually over time. Signs of impacted wisdom teeth include:

What causes impacted wisdom teeth?

Wisdom teeth usually become impacted when your jaw doesn’t have enough space to accommodate your teeth. Sometimes, a tooth may erupt at the wrong angle, which can lead to impaction.

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Diagnosis and Tests

How do you know if your wisdom teeth are impacted?

Your dentist will perform an examination and ask you about your symptoms. They’ll also take dental X-rays to see if your teeth are impacted and if your jawbone or other teeth are damaged.

Management and Treatment

How are impacted wisdom teeth treated?

If your impacted teeth are causing pain, infection or other dental damage, wisdom teeth removal is usually recommended. Many dentists recommend this oral surgery procedure as a preventative measure to reduce the risk of problems in the future.

Are impacted teeth more painful to remove?

While impacted wisdom teeth are generally more difficult to remove, the process isn’t necessarily more painful. Your dentist or oral surgeon will give you pain relievers to manage any post-operative (after surgery) discomfort.

What are the risks and complications of wisdom teeth removal?

Like any surgical procedure, wisdom teeth removal comes with some potential risks and complications, including:

  • Dry sockets. This happens when the blood clot from surgery becomes dislodged from your tooth socket prematurely (early), exposing your bone. You can reduce the risk of dry sockets by avoiding drinking through straws after your wisdom teeth removal.
  • Infection. Sometimes bacteria, food or debris (pieces of waste) can become trapped in the tooth socket, resulting in an infection. Your dentist or oral surgeon can prescribe antibiotics to treat an oral infection.
  • Damage to nearby structures. Sometimes your nerves, jawbone, sinuses or other teeth can become damaged during wisdom teeth removal. Advanced surgical techniques reduce the risk of these injuries, but they can still happen. Additional oral surgery procedures may be necessary to address this type of damage.
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How long does it take to recover from wisdom teeth removal?

Most people fully recover from wisdom teeth removal in one to two weeks. In most cases, you can return to work, school and other normal routines in just a few days.

Prevention

Can I prevent impacted wisdom teeth?

While you can’t prevent impacted wisdom teeth, you can reduce the risk for the problems they cause. Practice good oral hygiene and consider having your wisdom teeth removed at a younger age if they start causing problems.

Outlook / Prognosis

Is it necessary to remove impacted wisdom teeth?

If your wisdom teeth are impacted but aren’t causing any problems, you probably don’t need to remove them. However, if you start developing symptoms, removing them can reduce your risk of other issues and improve your overall oral health.

What happens if you don’t remove impacted wisdom teeth?

If your impacted wisdom teeth are causing pain and other symptoms, leaving them in place can be bad for your oral health. Impacted wisdom teeth are more prone to infection and abscesses — and they can cause damage, decay and disease to healthy teeth.

Living With

When should I seek care for impacted wisdom teeth?

If you have pain or other symptoms affecting the area behind your last molar, schedule an appointment with your dentist. They can determine if your issues are due to impacted wisdom teeth.

A note from Cleveland Clinic

Impacted wisdom teeth can cause a wide range of symptoms, including swelling, bad taste and pain that radiates throughout your jaw and face. Wisdom teeth removal is a common oral surgery procedure that can ease your symptoms and reduce the risk of future oral health problems. Talk with your dentist about whether this treatment is right for you.

Medically Reviewed

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 01/21/2022.

Learn more about our editorial process.

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