Retinopathy of Prematurity - What You Should Know About It

Retinopathy of Prematurity (ROP) is among the diseases that can impair the vision of children at birth and further down the line if left untreated. This condition can cause loss of sight depending on its severity and can even lead to blindness.

What is Retinopathy of Prematurity?

This is a condition in which abnormal blood vessels grow in the eye and can eventually start leaking blood and fluids, which might cause a partial or complete retinal detachment. If left untreated, it can cause a severe loss of sight, or even blindness

ROP normally develops in both eyes, however it does not progress at the same pace. The severity of this condition is categorised in 5 different stages:

In the first two stages the condition normally gets better on it's own and no treatment is required. It also doesn't cause any long term visual problems. 

When it comes to stage 3, several abnormal blood vessels can start growing toward the centre of the eye and cause complications. The condition might still improve on its own, but an examination will be necessary to assess if the baby requires treatment, as there's a bigger risk of sight loss. If treatment is needed, doing so properly and timely can prevent or reduce the impact caused by ROP. 

Stage 4 of this disease involves a partial detachment of the retina, as scars made by the bleeding of the abnormal blood vessels create scarring tissue that pulls the retina away from the back of the eye.

Stage 5 involves complete retinal detachment which can cause a severe vision impairment and even blindness if actions are not taken to treat it.

What causes Retinopathy of prematurity?

Premature birth, with the child being underweight, is considered one of the main causes behind the development of this condition. A premature birth can cause a disruption to the blood vessels forming around the retina of the eyes of the child, so they don't develop normally.

Retinopathy of prematurity symptoms

Since the effects of this condition develop deep into the eye of the child, when they are at a very young age and unable to communicate any changes in their vision, ROP can usually only be diagnosed by an eye specialist during a check up. 

From half a year to a year after birth, there is the possibility that the child at a severe stage of ROP might develop visible symptoms, such as:

  • Nystagmus (rapid and uncontrollable eye movements)
  • White pupils 

These, however, could signal many other eye conditions as well. It's generally a good idea to have regular check ups with your eye specialist if your child was born prematurely or underweight.

Treatment for Retinopathy of prematurity

Thankfully, this condition does not turn out severe very often and in most cases treatment is not even necessary. Around 9/10 children who have it recover on their own and the disease doesn't evolve beyond stage 1 or 2.

When it comes to more severe cases, where treatment needs to be applied, there are efficient methods to do so. The treatment might be:

  • Laser therapy
  • Cryotherapy

Both procedures aim to slow down or stop the growth of abnormal blood vessels by destroying specific areas in the periphery of the retina. Unfortunately, they usually cause loss of some side vision, although the central vision remains intact.

In conclusion

Retinopathy of prematurity can have serious consequences, so it is important to have regular check ups for your child, especially in case their birth was premature. 

Various other complications that may rise as a result of the condition, such as nystagmus, can be treated. 

For people that have already experienced sight loss resulting from this condition, there are different low vision aids and tools that can help them perform tasks independently; such as magnifiers. It might also become necessary to wear prescription glasses.