UTHSC’s Dental Sleep Medicine Center Offers Non-Invasive Solutions for Apnea

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Dr. Alan Blanton directs the William F. Slagle Center for Dental Sleep Medicine and Orofacial Pain at UTHSC. The center offers oral appliance therapy for patients with obstructive sleep apnea.

Eleven years ago, dentist Alan Blanton was diagnosed with moderate obstructive sleep apnea. The diagnosis eventually drew Dr. Blanton away from his private practice in Collierville and into his current position as director of the William F. Slagle Center for Dental Sleep Medicine and Orofacial Pain in the College of Dentistry at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center.

Located in the Dunn Dental Building at 875 Union Avenue, Suite C 101, the center offers oral appliance therapy for the treatment of obstructive sleep apnea and orofacial pain. In addition to its clinical mission, the center has an education component that offers training to dental students, as well as continuing education for practicing physicians in how to screen, assess, treat, and refer patients with sleep apnea and facial pain.

“Obstructive sleep apnea is one of the most underdiagnosed medical conditions in the United States,” Dr. Blanton said. “Estimates are that 25 to 30 million or more individuals in the adult population suffer from sleep apnea and more than 90 percent of them are undiagnosed and untreated.”

Sleep apnea occurs when the airway collapses during sleep, obstructing the intake of oxygen past the blockage for periods from 10 seconds to 90 seconds or longer and interrupting sleep. Some causes include malformations of the soft tissue of the mouth and throat, obesity that results in extra soft tissue in the wall of the windpipe, or lax muscles of the throat and tongue caused by aging or other conditions.

The three primary treatment options for obstructive sleep apnea are the CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) machine worn during sleep to continuously blow pressurized air through the airway to keep it open; surgical intervention to the palate or base of the tongue to resculpt and support the airway; and oral appliance therapy.

Oral appliances are custom-made to adjust the jaw and help to open the airway in order to reduce sleep apnea.

Oral appliance therapy uses custom-fitted oral appliances that are attached to the teeth to hold the lower jaw in a slightly forward position, stabilizing it and lifting tissues up to prevent the airway collapse from occurring.

Worn only during sleep, an oral appliance fits like a sports mouth guard or an orthodontic retainer. The patient is fitted with the device that best suits the mouth shape and the breathing issue. Follow-up visits ensure it sits properly and is relieving the problem.

“Oral appliance therapy, in my opinion and in a lot of people’s opinions, is the least invasive,” Dr. Blanton said. “It is considered by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine to be a first-line course of treatment for mild to moderate obstructive sleep apnea, and in many patients, can be just as effective as the CPAP.” The American Academy of Sleep Medicine is the governing body for all certified sleep physicians and certified sleep clinics across the country.

Dr. Blanton is certified by the American Board of Dental Sleep Medicine, the certification arm of the American Academy of Dental Sleep Medicine, a sister organization of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. “There are just over 300 board certified dentists for treating sleep apnea in the country,” he said.

Most major medical insurance plans, including Medicare, will cover oral appliance therapy for the treatment of obstructive sleep apnea, Dr. Blanton said.

Oral appliance therapy can also be used as a treatment for primary disruptive snoring. In addition, the center treats patients for orofacial pain or temporomandibular joint disorders. “There is a lot of overlap between what we do with oral appliances to treat sleep apnea and what we do to treat oral facial pain patients,” he said.

To contact the center, call 901.448.1463 or email ablanton@uthsc.edu.