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Retinopathy of Prematurity

Retinopathy of Prematurity

The final weeks and months of pregnancy are an important time for eye development. For this reason many premature infants experience eye problems. One of the most common is known as retinopathy of prematurity (ROP). This condition is very common among premature infants and will develop in as many as 80% of babies that are born weighing less than 2.2 pounds.

What is Retinopathy of Prematurity?

Retinopathy of prematurity is an eye disease that is commonly seen in premature infants. This condition can cause blindness. It is most commonly seen in low birth weight babies that are born before 31 weeks gestation. Smaller babies are at a greater risk to develop ROP. Retinopathy of prematurity is a condition that affects the retina of the eye. The retina is filled with many blood vessels. In ROP the blood vessels do not develop properly. These disorganized blood vessels can cause retinal scarring or detachment which can lead to blindness.

How Common is Retinopathy of Prematurity?

Retinopathy of prematurity is very common in premature infants. Each year it is estimated that between 14,000 and 16,000 premature infants are born with some level of this disease every year. Luckily 90% of those born with ROP are in Stage I or Stage II and do not require treatment or experience vision loss. Approximately 1,100-1,500 infants need treatment for sever ROP each year.

How Serious is ROP?

Retinopathy of prematurity can be a serious condition, but many times it will resolve itself without treatment. The severity of the disease is classified into categories based on how severe the condition is. There are five different classifications for ROP. Stage I is considered the least severe and Stage V is the most severe. Infants with Stage I or Stage II generally do not need treatment and their ROP will resolve itself without vision loss. Infants with Stage III ROP may experience a resolution of the condition without treatment, but may need treatment to keep the disease from progressing. Stage IV ROP occurs when partial retinal detachment occurs and can result in vision loss and retinal scarring. Stage V ROP is very severe and without treatment will eventually lead to complete blindness. Untreated ROP can progress and lead to blindness, so careful monitoring is important if your child has this condition.

Risk Factors for ROP

The biggest risk factor for ROP is prematurity. The eye starts to develop during the 16th week of pregnancy and continues until the eye is fully developed. This can take about 12 weeks. Full term babies are born with fully developed eyes and retina. Premature infants may not have a fully developed retina. When the blood vessels in the retina develop outside of the womb, they may not develop properly. Babies with low birth weights are at an increased risk for ROP. Researchers have also found that premature infants that need to receive medical intervention like blood transfusions or treatment for respiratory problems may be at a higher risk for ROP.

Retinopathy of Prematurity Treatment

Lasers are commonly used in ROP treatment. Lasers are used to burn away the outer edges of the retina where blood vessel growth is abnormal. This treatment is effective at preventing blindness, but can lead to some permanent side vision loss. Cryotheraphy (or freezing) is also used, with the same potential for side vision loss. If the ROP is severe and the retina has detached, treatment for retinal detachment may be needed.

What Can Be Done?

There is no way to prevent ROP other than increasing the length of time that a premature infant spends developing in the mother’s womb. If you are pregnant it is important to eat a healthy diet and to follow your doctor’s recommendations. If you start to notice signs of premature labor, see your doctor immediately since they may be able to stop the labor if you receive early treatment. If you have a baby with ROP it is important to seek medical care and monitoring to ensure that the disease does not progress. ROP can progress rapidly and early treatment is the best way to slow or prevent vision loss.

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