Retinopathy of Prematurity

Closeup of a Premature BabyIf your baby was born more than seven weeks early, your infant is at risk for Retinopathy of Prematurity.

What is Retinopathy of Prematurity?

Retinopathy of Prematurity (ROP) is an eye condition that occurs in premature babies who weigh less than 2.75 pounds at birth. In Retinopathy of Prematurity, abnormal blood cells grow in the area of the eye called the retina. The retina is a thin layer of tissue at the back of the eye and is responsible for a crucial part of vision. The abnormal blood vessels can leak and cause scarring. The resulting scars can pull the retina away from the back of the eye. If the retina is left unattached, the child’s vision could become damaged.

Is my child at risk of blindness because of Retinopathy of Prematurity?

Retinopathy of Prematurity has 5 stages. The mild growth of abnormal blood vessels is stage 1, while a completely detached retina is stage 5. Children in stages 1, 2, and sometimes stage 3 usually improve with no treatment at all. Children in the later stages of Retinopathy of Prematurity need treatment to preserve their eyesight.

The National Eye Institute reports that about 28,000 babies are born weighing 2.75 pounds or less each year. Nearly half of them have some form of Retinopathy of Prematurity, but it is almost always the milder forms. Each year, between 1,100 and 1,500 babies are born with Retinopathy of Prematurity that is advanced enough they need medical treatment. Out of that group, on average, 400 to 600 will become legally blind.

Why are premature infants most at risk of developing Retinopathy of Prematurity?

The eyes begin to develop around the 16th week of pregnancy, and they do not completely develop until the end of pregnancy, at 38 to 42 weeks. At 16 weeks, blood vessels start to form in the center of the retina. They slowly grow out toward the edges of the retina. The retina continues to develop for a few weeks after a full-term baby is born. When a baby is born early, the blood vessels have not fully grown and have not reached the edge of the retina. The edge of the retina needs the nutrients and blood that the missing vessels are supposed to supply. The blood vessels are not providing nutrients as they should, and this allows abnormal blood vessels to grow in their place.

Is Retinopathy of Prematurity Treatable?

Yes, you can treat Retinopathy of Prematurity. Often, the issue resolves itself. If your child needs treatment, your doctor will choose the best option based on your baby’s condition. Options include:

  • Laser surgery to stop the abnormal blood vessels that are growing on the edge of the retina.
  • Injections of medicine to cause the blood vessels to grow more normally.
  • Flexible silicone band around the eye that helps push the retina back in place.
  • Removal of the clear gel inside in the eye and scar tissue that is pulling the retina away from the back of the eye.

How will I know if my baby has Retinopathy of Prematurity?

There are no warning signs of this condition. An ophthalmologist or pediatric-trained optometrist must conduct an eye exam to determine if the condition is present.

If you suspect your baby has retinopathy of prematurity, schedule an appointment with one of our pediatric specialists at Grand Rapids Ophthalmology. Dr. Laura Piipppo, fellowship-trained pediatric ophthalmologist, with a vast amount of experience with children, and Dr. Abby Veldkamp, optometrist, who specializes in complete eye care for pediatric patients.

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