Boulder Eye Surgeons
Donald J. Keller, MD & Brian E. Nichols, MD PhD

Retinopathy of Prematurity

Retinopathy of Prematurity (ROP) damages premature babies' retinas, the layer of light-sensitive cells lining the back of the eye. ROP usually occurs in both eyes, though one may be more severely affected.

The last 12 weeks of a full-term pregnancy are an especially active time for the growth of the eye. When a baby is born prematurely, blood vessels are not ready to supply blood to the retina. At birth, abnormal new blood vessels form and may cause scarring or detachment of the retina. The condition is especially common in very small babies. It is more likely to occur at one or two pounds than at three pounds.

normal eyeretinopathy of prematurity
Normally, the retinal vessels mature in a flat, branch-like pattern (seen on the left). In ROP, the blood vessels are misdirected and can cause retinal detachment and poor vision.

In severe cases, the retina may be extremely scarred and detached. Many cases get better without treatment and only a small number of children go blind. Freezing (cryotherapy) or laser treatments can prevent progression of the disease.

Premature children and children with ROP are more likely to develop nearsightedness and amblyopia (lazy eye). Glasses, patching, and eye muscle surgery can help these associated problems. Close follow-up exams of all premature children, including those with ROP, are critical to ensure normal visual development.