There is an article linked from this morning’s Drudge Report that I wanted to comment on. It’s titled, “Parents sue after teen dies during wisdom tooth surgery,” and it’s by ABC News. Jenny Olenick, a lovely 17-year-old young woman (I assume the photo is of her), died in April from complications following wisdom tooth removal. The cause of death was determined by the medical examiner to be hypoxia (oxygen deprivation). She was anesthetized, failed to breathe properly apparently as a result of the anesthesia, and was not able to be resuscitated.
The author of the article, Katie Moisse, then takes off on the wisdom tooth removal procedure, and tries to turn the incident into an indictment of the oral surgery profession for doing this unnecessary procedure, and even goes so far as to say that the science supporting wisdom tooth removal as a preventive procedure (“prophylactic wisdom tooth removal”) is thin. It compares the surgery to prophylactic removal of the appendix because, it says, the potential complications of leaving impacted wisdom teeth alone carry the same degree of risk as leaving the appendix in. The article goes on to make a sweeping indictment of the oral surgery profession and oral surgeons.
However, there are two glaring flaws in the article.
The first is that the article entirely leaves out the main reason for removing wisdom teeth before they become a problem, and that is the dramatic increase in the surgical risk of the procedure with advancing age. There are two factors affecting this. The first is that, as you age, the bone in the jaw becomes much less pliable. This is the chief factor. From my experience, removing wisdom teeth on someone aged 17 to 20 is fairly easy, and the operation takes about five to ten minutes per tooth. And the risks of complications are very low. By age 25, the difficulty and the risks double. Add five more years, and the risks double again. As a result, when I had patients who were 40 or over, who had fully impacted wisdom teeth, I recommended that they not have them removed, because I feel that the risks of removal outweigh the risks of leaving them in. But below age 40, I believe the risks argue for taking them out.
The second factor is that, in teenagers, the roots of the wisdom teeth aren’t fully formed yet. This greatly simplifies the procedure.
The other glaring error in the article is that the patient didn’t die from complications of the surgery, but from complications of the anesthesia. Again, in a 17-year-old, the surgery is fairly simple, and can be done easily with moderate conscious sedation, which is extremely safe. Although this isn’t disclosed in the article, it appears that the patient was subjected to either general anesthesia or deep sedation.
I had my own wisdom teeth out prophylactically, as did all of my children. By the time you are in your late teens, it is fairly easy to predict if there will be enough room in your jaw for your wisdom teeth to erupt normally. If there isn’t enough room, I strongly recommend that you have them removed.
And interestingly, I had an e-mail from a patient come to me the following week that illustrates the wisdom of a prophylactic removal of wisdom teeth. Click the link to read the story.
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