Retinopathy of prematurity (ROP), is a possibly blinding disorder of the eyes that targets premature babies. Typically, babies whom are born before the 31 week mark of gestation, and weigh around 2 and ¾ pounds, are affected. If the baby is born even more premature, they have a larger chance of developing ROP. ROP commonly affects both of the eyes, and is a very common cause of sight loss in kids. It can eventually lead to blindness. Not every premature baby born will have ROP.
Roughly 14,000 to 16,000 premature infants are born with ROP each year in the United States alone. About 90% of all these cases are classified as the mildest form of the disorder, which does not require treatment to fix. The disorder will improve and there will be no lasting damage in these cases. However, over 1,000 of these infants will be born with ROP that will be bad enough to require medical treatment. Legal blindness from ROP affects about 400 to 600 of these babies each year. ROP is classified in 5 different stages. Stage 1 is mild, going up to Stage 5, severe.
The cause of ROP starts with the growth of abnormal blood vessels. These blood vessels then spread through the retina, and are so fragile they can leak. While they spread, they can pull the retina out of its normal position, causing a detachment. This is the main factor in babies that are born with ROP and experience visual problems and blindness. Since retinal blood vessels generally takes up to the 9 months gestation in the womb to complete growing, a premature baby will stop the normal vessel growth. The retinas edges will then be deprived of the oxygen and nutrients they need to fully develop. Breakthroughs in science have concluded the retina will look for other parts of the retina they can find nourishment from, causing new vessels to grow, this time abnormally. These are too fragile and can bleed, which leads to the retinal scarring.
There is treatment for ROP, including both laser therapy and cryotherapy. Each treatment essentially destroys the retinas peripheral areas, which then stops or reverses the abnormally growing blood vessels. Laser therapy is conducted by burning away the periphery area, while cyrotherapy involves freezing the surface of the eye. Both treatments will inevitable destroy some of the patients side vision. This is done so that the most important part of the vision, the area that looks forward, can be saved. These surgeries will only be considered for babies who are in Stage 3 of ROP. Doctors do not yet know what side effects, if any, can occur long term.
Babies who are born with ROP will be more likely to have certain vision problems later in their life. This may include myopia, which is commonly known as nearsightedness and can be corrected with prescription eyeglasses. Crossed eyes and lazy eyes may also develop later, and glaucoma may also be an issue later in life. Luckily, these conditions are easily treated by an experienced optometrist.