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Women's Lifestyle Magazine

Ask the Expert: Dr. Emily Van Heukelom, Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeon, Center for Oral Surgery & Dental Implants

DR. VAN HEUKELOM practices general oral and maxillofacial surgery, with interests in dentoalveolar/dental implant surgery, full mouth rehabilitation, anesthesia, and hospital-based procedures. She is a graduate of the University of Iowa College of Dentistry, followed by residencies at the University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics and Boston University Medical Center.

She is passionate about patient safety and provider wellness. Dr. Van Heukelom publishes articles and has worked as a reviewer for prominent specialty journals, worked on the committee to update national professional practice guidelines for oral surgeons, and lectures to diverse audiences including oral surgeons, dentist anesthesiologists, local dental societies, and resident physicians. In 2020, Dr. Van Heukelom started a West Michigan Chapter of the American Association of Women Dentists.

Dr. Van Heukelom began her professional career in private practice in New Hampshire before relocating with her husband to Grand Rapids in 2015 to be close to family. They are avid cyclists and are busy at home with pre-school age twins.

What to know about wisdom tooth extraction

What are wisdom teeth, and where are they?

Most people have 4 wisdom teeth at the back of the mouth. One on each side, top and bottom.

Do everyone’s wisdom teeth need to be removed?

Many people wonder about this or wonder if their kids need to undergo a procedure even when there is no pain or symptoms. It is true that some people have room for their wisdom teeth. They do not need to be removed if they grow in completely, chew well, don’t have signs of decay or gum disease, and don’t cause pain. Like other teeth in the mouth, good daily care at home, annual check-ups, and periodic xrays are recommended to keep erupted wisdom teeth healthy. 

How common is it that there isn’t enough space
for wisdom teeth? 

A majority of people do not have enough room for all of their wisdom teeth to erupt fully and be maintained in a state of health. Even when wisdom teeth erupt all the way into the mouth, they’re often so far back that it’s hard to clean well, making wisdom teeth more vulnerable to gum disease or tooth decay. For some people, wisdom teeth remain impacted, meaning the teeth can’t break through the gums all the way due to lack of space or poor alignment. Like other medical conditions like high blood pressure or diabetes, problems with wisdom teeth can exist for a long time without causing pain. In other words, pain free doesn’t mean problem free. 

When is the right time to get wisdom teeth checked?

If the wisdom teeth are erupted, your dentist can evaluate them at regular cleaning and exam appointments. For younger patients, the professional association of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeons (AAOMS) has conducted studies of wisdom teeth, and strongly recommends that third molars be evaluated by an oral surgeon by the time a patient is a young adult. The goal is to assess the wisdom teeth, potential for issues, and recommend management options specific to the patient. It is important to have this evaluation as the teeth are developing, because if surgery is recommended, the risk of complications and speed of recovery is typically more favorable before the tooth roots are fully developed. Reasons wisdom teeth may need to be removed include: 

• Infections and/or periodontal (gum) disease

• Cavities that cannot be restored

• Pathologies such as cysts, and tumors 

• Damage to neighboring teeth

If wisdom teeth need to be removed, how can a patient
get into your office?

Many patients receive a referral from their regular dentist, though some call us directly to set up the first visit. We invite patients to our office to review the medical history, xrays, and evaluate the mouth. Then we discuss the patient’s unique situation and treatment recommendation — there’s no one-size-fits-all. For some people needing one tooth removed, we’re able to use local numbing and they can drive to/from the appointment themselves.  In other situations, we talk about additional options to keep our patients comfortable, including medication for anxiety, nitrous oxide “laughing gas,” or sedation anesthesia.


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