Less Teeth, More Taste? Wisdom Teeth and Taste Buds

Patients who had their wisdom teeth removed often had an improved tasting ability many years after having the surgery, says a new study published in June 2021 in the journal Chemical Senses.

The study, conducted by Penn Medicine, challenges previous research that suggested that the removal of wisdom teeth negatively affected taste. 

The study by Penn Medicine is one of the first of its kind to examine the long-term effects of extraction on taste.

What Are Wisdom Teeth?

Wisdom teeth are also called third molars or supernumerary teeth because they erupt later than other teeth. They usually appear between ages 16 and 25. The average age for eruption is 20.5 years old.

Many years ago, the human jaw was much bigger than it is in modern-day humans, and it could easily accommodate these extra teeth. With a reduction in human jaw size, these molars have become highly prone to impaction, or not enough room to erupt through the jaw.

Most adults will have all four wisdom teeth but some may only have three. Increasingly, researchers are finding that wisdom teeth are congenitally absent (people are now born without them) in more individuals than ever before, making wisdom teeth a vestigial feature of the body. 

Why Do People Have to Have Wisdom Teeth Removed? 

If you don’t have adequate space in your mouth to accommodate your teeth, wisdom teeth removal may be necessary. If you don’t have them removed, they have the potential to cause problems, including:

Damage to other teeth. If you do not have adequate jaw space, these extra teeth can push your nearby teeth around, causing mouth pain and issues with your bite. 

Jaw damage. Your new teeth can cause cysts to form, and if they are not treated, it can impact your jaw health and damage the nerves of your jaw, resulting in jaw pain.

Sinus problems. Impacted or crowded wisdom teeth can result in sinus pain and pressure and also cause sinus congestion. 

Inflamed gums. Crowded wisdom teeth can make your gums swell because food debris and sticky dental plaque may get stuck in between teeth and contribute to the development of periodontal disease.

Cavities. If you’re experiencing swollen gums, pockets can form between the teeth that can harbor bacteria that cause tooth decay, cavities and bad breath.

Alignment. If your wisdom teeth are impacted, it can cause tooth crowding, which can trigger the need for orthodontic treatment or cause orthodontic relapse. 

Improving Taste 

Prior studies about the removal of wisdom teeth have only pointed to the negative effects on taste after extraction. These studies found that in most cases, these adverse effects lessen over time. 

However, the new research performed by the Smell and Taste Center at the University of Pennsylvania shows that taste functions actually get better from the time of surgery up to 20 years later. 

But, why?

To find out, the researchers on the study analyzed data from 1,255 patients who had undergone a chemosensory evaluation at Penn’s Smell and Taste Center over a 20-year period.

Of those 1,255, 891 patients had received third molar (wisdom teeth) extractions and 364 had not.

The test was a “whole-mouth identification” assessment, which incorporated five different concentrations of sucrose, sodium chloride, citric acid and caffeine. Each concentrated solution was sipped, swished in the mouth and then spit out.

Participants in the study then reported if the solution tasted sweet, salty, sour or bitter.

Individuals in the extraction group had better taste results in each of the four categories, suggesting that people who had their wisdom teeth extracted had a 3 to 10 percent improvement in their ability to taste.

There are two possibilities for this. One is the fact that wisdom teeth extraction causes damage to the nerves that are connected to the taste buds at the front of the mouth, which can, in turn, affect the rear of the mouth and cause increased whole-mouth tooth sensitivity. The second possibility is that hypersensitivity can develop and improve after peripheral nerve injury such as that caused by surgery. 

Some studies about hypersensitivity in animals have found that repetition, like chewing, can increase neural responses from previously irritated tissue. These improved neural responses can improve long-term hypersensitivity. The Penn researchers are unsure at this time if this is true for taste. 

What Should I Do if My Teeth Are Crowded? 

If your teeth are crowded as a result of impacted wisdom teeth or other factors, including jaw development issues, we recommend that you give us a call to discuss how we can help. Legends Dental offers patients a full array of orthodontic treatment options to help overcome undersized jaws and tooth crowding to give you a beautiful and healthy smile. 

Call us now to schedule your appointment for a consultation.