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An Overview of Retinopathy of Prematurity

written by: Laura Latzko • edited by: dianahardin • updated: 1/15/2011

Retinopathy of prematurity is an eye condition that results from premature babies not being able to develop fully before birth. Babies develop eye problems when the blood vessels in their retinas form incorrectly. Doctors often use cryotherapy and laser therapy techniques to treat the condition.

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    What is Retinopathy or Prematurity?

    Eye development in babies is usually complete by the time they are born or about a month after their births. Retinopathy of prematurity is an eye condition that is most common among premature infants. About 16 percent of babies born prematurely develop the eye problem, according to All Children’s Hospital. Merck Manuals Online Medical Library states that the condition is most common among infants that are born six months and two weeks or less into a pregnancy.

    The condition affects the retinas, the portion of the eyes responsible for sending visual signals to the brain. When babies are premature, the blood vessels within their eyes are not able to develop fully or become abnormal. Irregularly-developed blood vessels are found in the portion of the retinas known as the peripheral retinas. Along with retinopathy of prematurity, premature babies can develop health problems such as anemia; apnea, a condition that affects infants’ hearts and respiratory systems; low blood pressure; heart disease or bronchopulmonary dysplasia or respiratory distress syndrome, conditions that affect the lungs.

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    What are the Symptoms and Risks of Retinopathy of Prematurity?

    Most babies with retinopathy of prematurity do not exhibit any symptoms, which makes it difficult for their parents to notice that they have eye problems. Signs that an infant may have the condition include nearsightedness, leukocoria, a condition that causes the pupils in the eyes to appear white and irregularities in the movements of the eyes or problems with crossed eyes. Some babies develop scarring in their eyes or complete vision loss as a result of bleeding within their retinas.

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    How Do Physicians Diagnose Retinopathy of Prematurity?

    Usually premature infants need to get eye exams when they are around four to eight weeks old so that their pediatrician or ophthalmologist can find out if they have retinopathy of prematurity. Parents should take their babies to get examined if they are showing signs of having the condition earlier than four weeks after their births.

    Babies that have milder forms of retinopathy of prematurity often need to undergo eye examinations regularly so that their physicians or eye doctors can monitor their conditions. After being diagnosed with the condition, infants with severe forms of retinopathy of prematurity should receive treatment within three days, according to the National Library of Medicine and the National Institutes of Health.

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    What are the Treatments for Retinopathy of Prematurity?

    The treatment for retinopathy of prematurity depends upon the severity, or stage, of the condition. Babies with mild forms of the eye condition usually do not have to receive treatment, as their eyes are able to repair themselves. Patients with more severe forms of retinopathy of prematurity often undergo cryotherapy, a freezing procedure that helps to get rid of irregularly-developed blood vessels or scar tissue inside the retina. Another procedure, laser therapy helps to stop the further development of abnormally-developed blood vessels within the retinas. Doctors sometimes perform surgery on babies with detached retinas to connect their retinas to other structures within the eyes. The procedure can sometimes help restore a fraction of infants’ vision.

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    References

    All Children’s Hospital: Retinopathy of Prematurity

    http://www.allkids.org/body.cfm?id=23&action=articleDetail&AEProductID=Greystone_peds&AEArticleID=231

    Merck Manuals Online Medical Library: Retinopathy of Prematurity

    http://www.merckmanuals.com/home/sec23/ch264/ch264n.html

    National Library of Medicine and National Institutes of Health: Retinopathy of Prematurity

    http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/001618.htm

    Nemours Foundation: About Premies

    http://kidshealth.org/parent/growth/growing/preemies.html#

    ThinkQuest: Function: Cones and Rods

    http://library.thinkquest.org/25607/functionConesRods.php3

    Retina Associates, P.A.: Retinopathy of Prematurity

    http://www.retina-associates.net/ROP_seven.htm

    Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota: Retinopathy of Prematurity

    http://www.childrensmn.org/Manuals/PFS/Condill/066124.pdf