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Retinopathy In Preemies | A Guide To Understanding The Role Of An Optometrist

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If your son or daughter was born at or before 31 weeks of pregnancy, he or she almost undoubtedly needed to spend time in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, which is also known as the NICU. Those treatments, while essential for improving your baby's odds of survival, could also put your baby at a higher risk of developing a serious vision problem.  Therefore, if you suspect that your baby's vision is not as it should be, it is a good idea to discuss your concerns with an experienced optometrist or another eye doctor at your earliest opportunity.

Understanding ROP... A Cause Of Vision Loss In Premature Babies

The issue in question is known as Retinopathy of Prematurity, or ROP, and at least 14,000 babies develop it in the United States each year. It is thought to occur most often as the result of frequent oxygen treatments as a young, small baby and manifests as blood vessels in the retina that do not develop as they should. ROP may also occur from the light and steroid treatments that many babies who have been born too early require.

Fortunately, treatments are available and it is thought that just 600 or fewer babies become legally blind annually in the U.S. as the result of ROP. Unfortunately, some optometrists lack the experience necessary to properly diagnose and treat ROP. Therefore, it is crucial to do your research and find the right eye doctor for your baby. He or she will also need to be monitored by their eye doctor after treatment to check for additional retinal issues and to make sure that recovery from ROP is proceeding as expected.    

When Your Baby Can Be Diagnosed With Retinopathy Of Prematurity

Due to the fact that premature babies are the only victims of ROP, preemies will need to be checked for it at a very young age. Specifically, it should be done either when your baby is no older than four weeks OR when his or gestational age would be at 32 weeks. That number is determined by adding the baby's actual age to the duration of pregnancy at which he or she was born.  

The later date should be used when possible, so if your baby arrived at 26 weeks, he or she should be examined at six weeks of age. If your baby arrived at 29 weeks of pregnancy, waiting until their four-week anniversary of life is usually a safe choice, but your eye doctor will make the final determination as to timely testing for ROP. 

Treating ROP

ROP treatment is only recommended in severe cases and includes laser therapy, which burns off the outside of the retina and destroys any blood vessels that might linger there. Another treatment that could be necessary is cryotherapy, which functions in a similar manner, but freezes any unwanted or inappropriate growths that are found over the retina. The worst cases of ROP may be treated with the use of a band that is implanted around the eye with the goal of forcing the retina into a better position or with the surgical removal of fluid around the eye and replacing it with saline.

Cases that are not severe often need only to be watched, since the benefits of surgery do not offset the inherent risks. In that instance, the problem often heals without significant intervention. Patching the affected eye, applying eye drops, and the use of eye glasses may also be hepful at this juncture.       

In conclusion, ROP can rob your premature baby of some or all of their ability to see. As a result, it is very important to make sure that you discuss your baby, his or her health, and your concerns about their vision with an experienced eye doctor as soon as possible.