Teeth can sometimes seem like an oversight in the design of the human body. We only get two sets, one of which we use up by the time we’re about 10 years old. And the ones we get to replace them are expected to last us throughout the rest of our lives, despite the fact that they’re notoriously susceptible to infection and decay. Even using them for their intended purpose (that would be chewing, not opening soda bottles) wears them down over time. And once you get through the outer shell, you find the real heart of darkness. The nerves in teeth are like tiny demons of pain that have been sleeping in the gloom, just waiting for their chance to emerge and consume the sanity of whatever poor individual happens to need a root canal. But this is only scraping the surface (why do I cringe when I type that about teeth?), because there is a lot about teeth you don’t know. Here are 15 facts about your pearly whites that you probably didn’t know.
1. Your teeth began to form before you were even born. Most fetuses develop tooth buds at or before about 14 weeks.
2. In Medieval Europe, tooth care was provided by apothecaries and barbers. Apothecaries made various potions and breath fresheners from things like fruit juice, chalk, charcoal, and tobacco. Barbers would extract painful teeth with instruments such as pliers and knives.
3. Some people used to believe that cavities were caused by “tooth-worms.” One of the supposed remedies was for the patient to light a candle and sit next to it with his or her mouth open to draw the (nonexistent) worm out.
4. Ancient Chinese people would sometimes wrap sore teeth in tiny bits of parchment containing prayers or spells, in the hopes of alleviating the pain.
5. Scientists have noticed a link between regular flossing and healthier hearts. If you don’t floss, you’re at a higher risk for heart disease.
6. Some babies are actually born with small, weak teeth called “natal teeth.” These teeth are usually removed shortly after birth to prevent complications with feeding, and because they can be a choking-hazard when they fall out.
7. Some people have an extra set of teeth. In rare cases, a person may begin to lose their teeth at an advanced age, only to have an entirely new set grow in to replace them.
8. Some people have only one set of teeth. Baby teeth are lost when the replacement tooth begins to grow in underneath it, but if there are no replacement teeth to take their place, the baby teeth might remain in the gums indefinitely.
9. Saliva helps clean and protect your teeth. As people age, their saliva production starts to drop off, which is one of the reasons that older people tend to have increased tooth difficulty.
10. August 22 is national Tooth Fairy Day in the United States.
11. Although certain mixtures were used to help clean teeth as far back as 500 B.C., modern toothpaste wasn’t invented until the 1800s. Toothbrushes go a little further back, originating in ancient china and made from the bristly hairs of pigs.
12. Most Americans did not brush their teeth until after World War II, when returning soldiers introduced them to the habit that had been enforced in the service.
13. George Washington did not actually have any sets of wooden dentures. Instead he had ones made from ivory, gold, and even lead, which couldn’t have been very good for him.
14. Human teeth can withstand up to 120 lbs of pressure per square inch, and the average adult can exert about 120 lbs of biting pressure.
15. Wisdom teeth are vestigial, which means that they have lost their evolutionary significance. Given a few thousand more years, it’s possible that people will no longer be born with wisdom teeth; there are some people today who don’t have them at all!
Author Bio: Dr. Nathan Tanner is a dentist in Billings, MT., who has extensive experience through owning his own practice, Grand Avenue Dental Care, and from teaching cosmetic and pain-free dentistry at the OHSU dental school.