Retinopathy of Prematurity: What You Need to Know
In the womb, a baby’s eyes start to develop at around the sixth week of pregnancy. At this point, the eyes are just two small protrusions emanating from the brain. In the months that follow, these protrusions grow and become increasingly complex.
When babies are born prematurely, their eye development is interrupted. Babies who are born before 32 weeks of gestation or weighing 3.3 pounds or less are vulnerable to a potentially blinding eye disorder known as retinopathy of prematurity (ROP). The smaller babies are at birth, the more likely they are to develop this potentially debilitating disorder.
Characteristics of ROP
ROP causes abnormal blood vessels to develop in the retina. If these blood vessels leak or bleed, they can leave scars on the retina that can lead to retinal detachment. Left untreated, this can cause abnormal eye movements, crossed eyes, extreme nearsightedness, and leukocoria, which is a cloudy white circle that appears in the center of the eye when a light is shone into it.
The Stages of ROP
The severity of the condition is classified in stages, ranging from stage I (mild) to stage V (severe):
- Stage I: In these mild cases, abnormal blood vessel growth is minimal. Children may not require treatment and can even eventually develop totally normal vision.
- Stage II: This stage is similar to stage I except there is an increase in abnormal blood vessel growth. Nevertheless, the condition may still heal on its own without advancing.
- Stage III: At this stage, there is a lot of abnormal blood vessel growth, especially around the central portion of the eye instead of along the retina’s surface. Although normal vision development is still possible, at this stage it’s likely that treatment will be necessary.
- Stage IV: During this stage, the retina becomes partially detached.
- Stage V: At this stage, the retina becomes entirely detached. If left untreated, the baby is likely to experience advanced vision problems or even blindness.
How Common is ROP?
Although ROP is a serious condition, it’s worth noting that severe cases are relatively rare, even among premature babies:
- Out of the 3.9 billion babies born annually in the U.S., only about 14,000 babies will be diagnosed with ROP
- About 90% will have a mild case of ROP
- Up to 1,150 ROP babies will develop a severe case that requires treatment
- Every year, only 400–600 babies in the U.S. become legally blind because of ROP
How Is ROP Treated?
The main treatment options for ROP are medications injected directly into the eye or laser therapy. With proper treatment, it’s possible to save the baby’s vision. In order to start treatment as soon as possible, it’s important that you have your baby’s eyes checked by an ophthalmologist after coming home from the hospital.
If you recently gave birth to a premature baby and are concerned about your baby’s vision, contact the experts at Austin Retina Associates.