If you’re reading this because you’re preparing for wisdom tooth surgery, you may have already heard some horror stories about liquid diets, excruciating pain, dry socket, or other complications.
But I want to put your mind at ease.
Millions of wisdom teeth are extracted every year without incident. (1) And by following some simple strategies, you can speed up your post-surgery recovery and feel more comfortable during the process.
When wisdom teeth come in, they can cause a host of complications, including impaction, infection, and even cancer. And when these issues emerge, extracting the wisdom teeth may be the best solution—even if the idea of having teeth surgically removed is less than appealing.
So in the very likely scenario that you or a loved one need to have wisdom tooth surgery, the best thing to do is to prepare for recovery in advance.
In this article, I’ll share:
- What happens when you have your wisdom teeth extracted
- Easy tips for making recovery quicker and more comfortable
- Answers to frequently asked questions about wisdom teeth and their removal
So let’s get started!
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What happens during wisdom teeth surgery
There are two main types of wisdom tooth surgery, and the extraction process is different in each one.
A simple extraction is often used for wisdom teeth that have already erupted through the gum line. During this type of surgery, the patient is given a numbing agent, and perhaps a form of sedation, so that he’s not fully aware during the procedure.
Once the patient has been numbed and sedated, the dentist will grip the tooth with forceps and rock it back and forth in order to loosen the tooth from the jaw before removing it completely.
The second type of extraction is referred to as impacted wisdom tooth surgery. It is performed before the wisdom teeth have erupted through the gums and are perhaps still embedded in the jawbone.
During this procedure, the patient will typically receive some form of general anesthesia (that is, anesthesia that affects the entire body and triggers a partial loss of consciousness) on top of local anesthesia near the extraction site. The surgeon will then cut away any gum or bone tissue that’s covering the tooth before releasing it.
In some cases, the dentist or surgeon may also use stitches during the procedure to facilitate the healing process and allow the body to create a blood clot that will protect the gum tissue and bones as they heal. In both extraction scenarios, however, the delicate tissue of the mouth is affected, which will most certainly lead to pain and swelling.
Once the extraction is complete, your dentist or oral surgeon will provide information on how to best care for your mouth while you recover. It’s important to read these instructions closely and follow them carefully. The guidelines are designed to make your recovery as smooth as possible and to prevent any further complications.
In addition to the information your dentist provides, here are some other ways to make your wisdom teeth surgery recovery a little faster and, hopefully, less painful.
6 tips for wisdom tooth surgery recovery
1. Prevent dry socket
Once your wisdom teeth extraction is complete, your body will immediately begin the work of healing itself. This includes forming a blood clot over the extraction site to protect the tissue and bone underneath—think of it like a scab that protects skin wounds as they heal.
Keeping this blood clot in place is very important. If it is dislodged for any reason, it can cause tremendous pain once the underlying bone is exposed. This condition is called dry socket, and it can be caused by seemingly harmless activities like sipping through a straw or swishing with mouthwash.
Your dentist will give you gauze to bite down on right after the surgery. When it’s time to replace it, failing to soak the new gauze in water before putting it in your mouth can also lead to dry socket, as the gauze can stick to the clot and pull it out.
Read my article on how to prevent and heal dry socket, and check out the video below for more info on this painful, but preventable, condition.
2. Keep your head elevated for the first three days
When you sleep, keep your head elevated with lots of pillows so your upper body is close to a 45-degree angle. This can help you recover faster from wisdom tooth surgery because blood vessel tone and blood volume near the wound increase when you’re lying flat, which can make the wound throb. Additionally, keeping your head elevated above your feet can help reduce swelling.
Using an airline pillow is an easy and effective way to keep your head comfortably elevated when you’re in an upright position.
3. Ice the area of the cheek closest to the extraction site for the first day
Cold can help reduce swelling and inflammation, so I recommend applying ice to the area close to the extraction. Wrap the ice in a cloth to protect from ice burns, and only ice the area for about 20 minutes at a time. You can also purchase a head wrap that will give you a hands-free way to keep your jaw iced.
A word of caution, though: Never apply heat to this area. Heat can increase blood flow to the area which, as mentioned, will increase pain and swelling.
4. Don’t let your mouth dry out
Your mouth will probably feel quite sore after wisdom tooth surgery, and depending on how tender you are, you may be tempted to breathe through your mouth. Avoid it if possible, though, as this can dry your mouth out. Dryness can disrupt the pH balance of your mouth, which can allow cavity-causing bacteria to proliferate, increasing the chance of infection.
If you must breathe through your mouth, use an oral cavity moisturizer like Biotene gel to help keep your mouth healthy while you recover.
5. Massage your masseter muscle on both sides of your mouth
During wisdom tooth surgery, your mouth is held wide open for an extended period of time, which can contribute to myofacial pain and cramped or sore muscles. The masseter, which is one of the muscles in your jaw that helps you chew, is particularly prone to soreness.
Massaging this area post-surgery will help you recover faster because it releases some of the unnecessary tension that your jaw may be holding onto. To find this muscle and know where to massage, place your fingers just before the opening of each ear. Massage gently for a few minutes at a time.
6. Drink ice-cold coconut water until you’re able to eat soft foods
Not being able to eat normally is one of the unpleasant side effects of wisdom tooth surgery, but coconut water can help you stay hydrated and satiated during recovery.
Coconut water helps to keep blood sugar stable and replenish electrolytes while you’re unable to eat solid foods. Having these elements in balance allows your body to focus more of its attention on healing from wisdom teeth surgery.
Additionally, drinking your coconut water at a very cold temperature can soothe any lingering inflammation.
If you want to reap the benefits of coconut water but don’t want to drink it straight, try whipping up a smoothie with lots of greens and healthy fats, and use coconut water as the liquid. I’d also recommend adding a dash or two of turmeric to further fight inflammation and speed recovery.
Wisdom tooth surgery FAQs
While every patient’s wisdom tooth surgery experience is different, there are some common questions that are applicable in most cases. Here’s a look at some of them, along with my responses, to help you gain an even better understanding of the wisdom tooth surgery recovery process.
How long is wisdom teeth surgery?
It depends on your dentist and your particular case, but typically the surgery takes no more than an hour and a half.
What are my anesthesia options?
Your anesthesia options will depend on the level of complication of the extraction, as well as what your dentist or oral surgeon offers.
An injected, local anesthetic is used to numb the mouth, and is often paired with sedation (a pill that relaxes you and makes you drowsy) and/or nitrous oxide (also called laughing gas), which is also relaxing.
IV sedation is also paired with local anesthetic, as IV sedation doesn’t provide any pain relief, but it will allow you to respond to your dentist’s verbal cues while keeping you relaxed.
General anesthesia is also an option. It is typically used for more complicated extractions and is often paired with other medicines that will make you completely unconscious. This will be done in a hospital environment.
What is a bone graft, and do I need to have one after extraction?
A bone graft is a procedure that is typically done after an extraction, in order to rebuild the bone that is left behind after a tooth is removed. When an implant is planned, a bone graft will provide the foundation for the implant to be screwed into.
When a wisdom tooth is removed, it is not replaced by an implant. However, I still recommend a bone graft to provide support for the tooth right next to the extraction site.
If, for example, you have an upper wisdom tooth removed, a bone graft can prevent rearward deflection (and eventual shifting) of the nearest molar when you bite down on it.
Some dentists will argue that bone grafts are a waste of time and money, especially following wisdom tooth surgery. But I still think it’s important to have a discussion about whether a bone graft is right for you.
How long does the bleeding last after surgery?
Bleeding should stop within four hours. If it doesn’t, contact your dentist or surgeon. If you see some blood-tinged saliva, that’s ok. Thick, clotted blood warrants a call to your surgeon.
How long does the pain last after surgery?
Most swelling should subside within two to three days. (2) Jaw stiffness and soreness should subside within a week or so of surgery, and any bruising should be gone within about two weeks. Typically bone pain after surgery peaks at the 72-hour mark and then begins to subside.
What is the average, total recovery time?
For most cases, it takes about two to four days to get to a point that recovery is no longer affecting your daily life (e.g., throbbing pain, inability to eat, etc.). (3) More severe cases may take up to a week. However, it takes a month or more for your mouth to fully heal after surgery, so you’ll want to stay on top of your oral hygiene to prevent infection or discomfort.
How much does wisdom teeth surgery cost?
The price varies based on how many teeth are being removed and how simple or complicated the procedure is, as well as how much your insurance will cover. According to Angie’s List, a simple, single wisdom tooth removal typically costs between $75 to $200. The removal of all four wisdom teeth averages $300 to $800, total. (4)
Impacted teeth are more expensive to extract, costing between $225 and $600 per tooth, and general anesthesia can add an additional cost of $250 or more. If you have dental benefits, this surgery falls in the 80%-coverage category.
Does the body go through changes after teeth extractions?
I, along with many of my patients, have experienced a slight narrowing of the face after wisdom teeth extraction. I inform my patients of this before the procedure, while also advising on the obvious risks like infection, nerve damage, and broken jaw. The good news is that this narrowing is usually considered an aesthetic improvement by patients.
Many people find that their jaw structure and facial features are more defined after wisdom teeth surgery. In fact, some professional models have their wisdom teeth removed to give them the look of having higher cheekbones. The danger here, of course, is that people have teeth taken out for aesthetic reasons, and not health reasons. Of course, I do not recommend this.
What are the most common complications related to wisdom teeth extractions?
Nerve injuries during extraction, which can cause pain or numbness, are a somewhat common complication and can affect between 0.4 percent and 8.4 percent of patients. (5) The injury can be temporary or permanent but usually resolves itself without treatment.
Infection is another common side effect, although if there’s concern that an infection may be possible, many dentists will prescribe antibiotics.
Regarding recovery from wisdom teeth surgery, the development of dry socket is one of the most common complications. Again, this occurs when the protective blood clot that fills the hole that the extracted tooth left behind is dislodged.
Dry socket happens in about five percent of patients and can be particularly painful because the nerve endings of the bone are exposed. However, it is treatable using medicated gauze or a paste that helps protect the bone from exposure while it heals.
What are signs that I need to go back and see my dentist following extraction?
If you experience any of the following after wisdom teeth surgery, I recommend contacting your dentist promptly:
- Severe bleeding that doesn’t subside within four hours post-extraction
- Throbbing pain that doesn’t subside with medication
- Oozing pus
- Increased swelling
- Fever and chills
- Pain that spikes 48 hours after extraction
- Nausea or vomiting
- Chest pain
- Shortness of breath
Final thoughts on wisdom tooth surgery
Wisdom teeth surgery is a common and relatively safe procedure. If you follow your dentist or surgeon’s detailed advice and consider some of the above tips—including preventing dry socket, keeping your head elevated, and stocking up on coconut water—you’ll be well on your way to healing in no time.Read Next: Wisdom Teeth Removal: Know Before You Go