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Wisdom tooth removal: a surgery with unnecessary risks?

When a young person dies, pain lingers for a life lost with so much promise. When the death comes suddenly, the feeling only deepens. However, when the death appears to have been avoidable, pain often turns to anger. After a 17-year-old Maryland girl died during a routine surgery for wisdom tooth removal, her parents filed a lawsuit against the oral surgeon and anesthesiologist alleging medical malpractice.

Every year, wisdom tooth removal is performed on five million Americans. While it is a common outpatient operation, it still carries with it the same risk of surgical error as most procedures, particularly as it requires anesthesia. Some possible side effects include nerve damage to the surrounding areas, brain tissue infections, hypoxia or severe bleeding that can be life threatening.

The medical examiner determined that the cause of girl's death was hypoxia, or oxygen deprivation, while she was under anesthesia. In the lawsuit, the parents blame the surgeon and anesthesiologist for negligence and for failing to resuscitate the girl following a drop in her heart rate and blood oxygen level.

The parents hope that the lawsuit will spur better emergency training for oral surgeons and dentists as well greater awareness of the risks of such a procedure. Some in the dental community question whether the surgery is even necessary, as it is often performed in young adults as a precaution rather than a reaction to actual problems with the teeth.

While the common perception is that the surgery will help avoid future problems, research suggests the risk of impacted wisdom teeth causing issues is about 12 percent, or roughly the same rate as appendicitis. Given the risks associated with that surgery, appendectomies are only performed with a confirmed case of the infection.

Even if a change in policy is forthcoming, it will be too late for the young Maryland woman and her parents, who are left with the pain of a life lost and strong feelings that the alleged surgical errors could have been prevented with proper training and awareness.

Source: ABC News, "Parents sue after teen dies during wisdom tooth surgery," Katie Moisse, Dec. 15, 2011

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