Extractions & The Airway

By Ashley Craig


When David* recognized his former Orthodontist while vacationing on a tropical island in 2010, he decided to confront him about his treatment as a child.

“Do you remember me?” he asked.  The orthodontist shook his head.  David smiled and pointed to his teeth.

 “Oh, I suppose you’re a former patient,” said the orthodontist.

“Yes.  Do you notice anything about my teeth?” David asked.  The orthodontist shook his head.

“They’ve returned to how they were before.  You really should change your treatment method.”

“Well, that’s your opinion,” the orthodontist responded.

Like many orthodontic patients, David had started with a minor case of crowding as a child.  His orthodontist removed four premolar teeth and subsequently applied fixed braces to close the gaps and align the teeth.  Shortly after their removal, his remaining teeth relapsed.  After enduring two years of his life in braces, thousands of dollars had gone toward a still-crooked smile, now with missing teeth.

Extraction of teeth is a common practice in the dental industry.  According to Orthodontist Chris Norton, over 60% of traditional orthodontic cases in the U.S. and over 80% in the U.K. involve extracting between four and eight permanent teeth. Removing teeth and straightening them into alignment may at first appear to be a simple and effective method of correcting teeth.  With myriad problems resulting from extraction treatment, however, one must question whether this method is an easy way out for the practitioner rather than an optimal solution for the patient.  In the short term extraction is hard on the body, with trauma to the surrounding tissue, use of anesthesia, and potential for complications such as bleeding and dry sockets.   Beyond these immediate issues, extracting teeth and closing the gaps narrows the dental arch, allowing less room for the tongue and potentially reducing the volume of the posterior airway.  The approach can lead to long-term conditions such as sleep apnea, and even damage the facial structure.  A narrow arch provides less bony support for the face, sometimes leading to a dished-in appearance from the side as well as a narrower facial structure and smile.

The difference between extraction and non-extraction treatment is exemplified by a paper published by Dr. H.L. Eirew in the British Dental Journal in 1976.  Two identical twin girls had presented with identical cases of crowded teeth. 


 One received extraction treatment, while the other had her palate expanded.  The resulting differences are nothing short of profound.

For many years, orthodontists have practiced with the belief that we have evolved to have smaller jaws that are unable to accommodate all 32 teeth. Looking at the history of malocclusion, however, it becomes apparent that the rise of crooked teeth is closely paralleled with the rapid rise of civilization – something that has only taken off in the last four hundred years; a relative blink of an eye with the process of evolution taking millions of years.  This amount of time is simply too short for our genes to have changed significantly.  As such, it seems that crooked teeth are not a result of genetically smaller jaws but rather a developmental effect of our modern lifestyles.

Once we accept that narrow jaws and malocclusion are environmental rather than genetic, the focus of orthodontic treatment necessarily changes from the easy route of extracting teeth to the optimal solution of expanding the jaw to accommodate the teeth.  

What About Wisdom Teeth?

Janet’s* story demonstrates how the dental industry can be overly extraction-happy.  She’s one of the lucky ones, with a wide dental arch and enough room to accommodate all 32 teeth.  Her wisdoms grew in straight without issue, and yet every six months at her dental check-up she receives the same advice from her dentist: “You might as well get your wisdom teeth removed; you don’t need them.”

Even if we were to accept the common “wisdom” that wisdom teeth are vestigial structures, it is alarming to think about the prevalence of wisdom tooth extraction.  After all, we do not have our appendix removed unless it causes us problems.  Why, then, do nearly 85% of adults go through the trauma of surgery for teeth that frequently remain dormant in the bone, or even erupt fully with no issue?  There appears to be a degree of fear mongering, with experts advising patients that problems like decay, infection or cysts will most likely flare up in time.  However, figures cited by organizations with a vested interest in promoting oral surgery are rarely backed by evidence.  In fact, when asked by the New York Times to back up its claim that 80% of young adults who retained wisdom teeth developed problems within seven years, The American Association of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeons could not produce supporting evidence and deleted the statement from their website.  Critics of routine extraction cite many studies, among them one that found complications occurred for only 12% of 1,756 middle-aged people who did not have their wisdom teeth removed.

Perhaps many of us get along fine without our wisdom teeth, but are we really in optimal condition without them?  It’s certainly a thought to chew on.

Want to fight unnecessary extraction and help save the wisdom teeth of the world?  Click here to donate to our research fund and receive a free T-shirt with a donation of $30 or more.

*Name changed 

Showing 38 reactions

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  • Alexander Illi
    commented 2020-02-01 23:32:58 -0800
    Dear Kim Henry,

    it was without addressing your earlier comments that I dropped by.

    Now that we are in conversation, however, I would first like to point out you made a strawman-argument:
    I have never stated “that sleep disorders are ALWAYS caused by small jaws”.

    Secondly, I would like to say that I already respect you a lot, since at least you are concerned about the topic, which is more awareness than the vast majority of orthodontists show.

    What I (and you) feel/perceive/deduct is not immaterial, it is all that counts for a person subjectively. But I know what you mean (if I may infer), i.e. that it might be illusionary.
    To that I can say that I have an excellent perception of the inner workings of my body (proprioception ASO) compared to the average, as I have seen again and again by my premonitions being confirmed by scientific studies later and by being alert earlier than others about infections spreading in a group and likewise situations (which you of course may say is due to deluding myself). Anyway, my tongue feels just about the ~7mm too long, that they have ripped out of my jaw. 7mm is enough to slacken the velum and compress the airways leading from the nose. I’m not old and tired, as you may see from my currently up-to-date profile pic.
  • Alexander Illi
    commented 2020-02-01 23:31:09 -0800
    So of course you may always discard my opinion as self-delusion, but then you’ll have to live only by scientific studies (good luck with studying the methodology of each and every one before you make any life-decisions ; ) or whatever ‘material’ evidence you go by. As a layperson, I don’t count that among my responsibility or practicability and neither will I blindly trust every word of the so-called white-clad demi-gods, i.e. orthodontists etc., as I have achieved an academic degree myself and thus surely know that this does not imply anyone being omniscient or free of bias in their respective fields.

    Thank you for your concerned question about an ENT check-up, but I’m living in rural Africa without health insurance and with minimal income from agroforestry and some support from my mum, married, with three sons, and only visit Europe very briefly every few years to help my mum with repairs, maintenance and such issues, where I’m also not insured…
  • Alexander Illi
    commented 2020-02-01 23:28:50 -0800
    (OK, must be character limit, so I’m a gonna chop this up : )

    I simply had an ever-so-slight “overbite”, that never caused me any discomfort – I’m actually sure it’s a common evolutionary adaption, that in case of concussions to the head (accidents, fights…) the incisors don’t meet head-to-head and break. Basically the same reasons that the spine in never perfectly symmetric, if you have been following recent scientific developments.
    Now my lower yaw is permanently instinctively retracted to avoid the incisors meeting head-on, which is an involuntary adaption since after the ‘ortho’-dontic ‘treatment’.

    I was also a perfectly normal and even handsome lad, but the dentist told my mother I’d be disfigured later. (At a school inspection, BTW, they also told my mum I had flat feet, which is also not the case at all, and sent me to an orthopedician – if not my mum’s feet had been totally destroyed by ‘orthopedic’ insoles and ‘treatments’ in her infancy, she might have also believed that and consented to insoles for me).

    If you really wish to go into my allegations without debating strawmen, then I’d be interested in what you perceive as a fundamental difference between ripping out a healthy boy’s teeth and e.g. FGM (Female Genital Mutilation) in primitive cultures.
  • Alexander Illi
    commented 2020-02-01 23:26:24 -0800
    Hi Kim, seems I can’t post comments, or there may be a limit of length, so I just try with this test-comment.
  • Kim Henry
    commented 2020-02-01 05:53:56 -0800
    The allegation that sleep disorders are ALWAYS caused by small jaws is not correct. There are many causes- low draping soft palate over tongue, overly large tonsils, overly large tongue resulting from tooth loss, and tired old muscles that don’t hold the pharynx open are a few. It is LUDICROUS to blame it all on improperly formed jaws from faulty orthodontics. What you “FEEL” is immaterial. Have you had any imaging done by an ENT of your airway.
  • Alexander Illi
    commented 2020-01-31 22:11:53 -0800
    You have nailed it. However, you’ve couched your allegations in too conservative terms when it comes to “aesthetic” extractions & braces: they are a mutilation of minors, whom are too young to object.
    My tongue feels crammed in and my nostrils are constantly somewhat flared to compensate for the tightening of the airways. (Heck, I would look even better without that ‘treatment’ my dentist arbitrarily decided on, when I was about 10 years old. She had trouble getting my very strong teeth out, BTW). I do oral interior muscle exercises to keep the slackened muscles under control, as not to start snoring. Apnoe is a gradual killer.

    If I could afford it, I would get braces again to reverse the damage, as my friend has done.
    …at least her children have afforded a big house right after she died.

    All for unasked-for subjective ‘aesthetic’ reasons of dentists and orthodontists – I didn’t know they have all studied visual arts.
  • Kim Henry
    commented 2020-01-31 05:33:03 -0800
    Those photos might be of identical twins, but the one on the left appears to have a narrower skull at the outset. Both have attractive smiles in the second photos. The difference is not “profound.” So what is your beef?

    I have had identical twins in the practice that grew differently even with no orthodontics. Life is like that sometimes; nobody knows why.
  • Kim Henry
    commented 2020-01-31 05:10:34 -0800
    We do far fewer extraction cases than we have in the past. One reason is we have some orthodontic mechanics now that did not exist before. But not every arch can be expanded to fit all the teeth.

    I got news for you: even when the wisdom teeth can all be erupted, the gums usually are not healthy around them. Food impaction frequently causes decay on the back of the second molars, sometimes dooming them. It is a rare patient that can maintain wisdom teeth.

    Modern jaws are shorter than human jaws 100,000 years ago. That is a fact. The upper cranium enlarged to accomodate a larger brain, and the jaws were shortchanged in size. Sometimes it is impossible to fit all the teeth in jaws of patients. There is a limit to growth and expansion.

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