About five million Americans have wisdom teeth extracted every year. It’s usually quick, safe procedure that takes a few days to recover from. People often feel quite a bit of pain those first few days, which is why oral surgeons prescribe pain medication for patients recovering from dental surgery. Unfortunately, that medication can be addictive. You may have heard anecdotal evidence about someone with no addiction history having a wisdom tooth extraction or other surgery, then developing an addiction to the pain medication. A recently published study suggests that this problem is more than just a few isolated incidents. Researchers from the University of Michigan studied more than 70,000 cases of wisdom tooth extraction and found that younger people, aged 15 to 30 were almost three times as likely as people of other ages to keep refilling their prescriptions, indicating they were using opioid pain medication far longer than necessary. Many teens have their wisdom teeth removed as a preventive measure, the logic being the teeth are easier to remove at a younger age and younger people recover more quickly. However, this also exposes teens to opioids who might never have otherwise taken them. This is a problem because young age of initial use is a major predictor of developing addiction later on. What’s more, teen brains are still developing and exposing them to powerful opioids can have a significant impact on their cognitive development. One study found that teens who were prescribed opioid pain medication by twelfth grade were 33 percent more likely to misuse opioids between the ages of 19 and 25. The study also found the increase in risk was greater among teens without other risk factors for substance use issues. It seems that the opioid painkillers typically prescribed after wisdom tooth extraction can create an addiction risk where there was none before, especially among teens. However, this risk is not inevitable. While it is clear that wisdom teeth that cause tooth decay or infection should be removed, there is controversy within the dental profession over whether preventive extraction is a good idea. Any extraction carries some risk, including poor healing, infection, pain, and nerve damage. It seems we can now add opioid addiction to that list. Many dentists and oral surgeons don’t believe preventive extractions are worth the risk. If you do need to have your wisdom teeth extracted, you don’t necessarily need to take opioid medication. Right now, Vicodin is prescribed after more than 70 percent of wisdom tooth extractions, but studies suggest that anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen perhaps combined with acetaminophen might be just as good or better than opioids for treating pain after oral surgery.
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