Retinopathy of Prematurity (ROP)

Retinopathy of Prematurity, usually referred to as ROP, is a condition which often occurs in infants who are born prematurely. Visual impairments frequently result from significant ROP, with blindness occurring in severe cases. Historically ROP was seen as being the direct result of extensive oxygen therapy in the postnatal period of a preterm infant. It is now known that other factors may also be involved.

Around the fourth month of gestation the retinal blood vessels begin growing from the area of the optic nerve in the back of the eye toward the front of the eye, with vascularization typically complete at birth. The preterm infant's retinal/visual development is interrupted by birth, and the events that follow (oxygen therapy, ventilation, surfactant therapy, etc.) somehow induce changes in the normal pattern of blood vessel growth.

Retinopathy of prematurity involves the proliferation of retinal blood vessels in an abnormal pattern. When the vessel growth stops, this may result in retinal scar formation. Contraction of this retinal scar may actually cause the retina to detach - inducing blindness. ROP represents the most common cause of retinal damage in infants. Infants with ROP are additionally more likely to experience myopia, strabismus, glaucoma, and blindness.

What cause the abnormal growth of blood vessels in ROP is still not completely understood. Extensive postnatal oxygen therapy remains strongly correlated. Premature infants should be evaluated regularly by an ophthalmologist while in the neonatal intensive care unit, and at subsequent visits to the clinician during the first few months of life. Early detection of ROP may permit timely intervention, such as laser cauterization, which may stop disease progression and avoid/reduce retinal detachment.

The previous material was taken in small part from the Baby Awareness and Support through Interactive Computer Systems (BASICS); a project supported by the U.S. Department of Education and the University of Kentucky.

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