Retinopathy of Prematurity in Newborn Babies

Retinopathy of prematurity (ROP) is the abnormal development of blood vessels in the retina of the eye. It may lead to blindness and occurs most often in premature infants who weigh two and three-quarter pounds or less and are born before the 31st week following conception.

Between 400 and 600 newborn babies become blind from retinopathy of prematurity each year. ROP usually develops in both eyes. It is among the most frequent causes of visual impairment and blindness in children and may last a person’s whole life.

Newborns who weigh the least and are the most premature are at the greatest risk for ROP. Usually, babies born before 30 weeks gestation and who weigh less than three pounds are screened for retinopathy of prematurity. Some babies, even if they are past 30 weeks gestation, but weigh only between three and four and a half pounds also are screened.

History of ROP in Newborn Babies

The disorder was more common in the past when excess oxygen was given to premature babies, because it stimulated abnormal growth of blood vessels. It was first diagnosed in 1942. Today this is an uncommon problem because the delivery and monitoring of oxygen are carefully controlled. Improved neonatal intensive care has significantly decreased the incidence of the problem.

The disorder affects between 14,000 and 16,000 infants to some extent. The condition usually improves and causes no permanent damage in its milder forms. These children need no treatment. They constitute about 90 percent of those born with the disorder.

But, between 1,100 and 1,500 infants are born each year with a form of ROP severe enough that it may cause blindness and needs to be treated.

How Retinopathy of Prematurity Develops

The retina is a layer of tissue composed of nerve cells at the back of the eye. It responds to light and sends impulses that travel to the brain via the optic nerve.

At about 16 weeks after conception, the eyes start to develop and blood vessels begin to form in the retina. During the last 12 weeks of pregnancy, the eyes develop rapidly. They continue developing until the time of birth. When a baby is born prematurely, however, the typical development of these blood vessels may be interrupted. This can produce a number of abnormal conditions, including:

  • The blood vessels may stop growing
  • The vessels in the retina may grow into the normally clear gel that fills the back of the eye
  • These blood vessels, which are weak, can cause bleeding in the eye
  • Scar tissue can grow and cause the retina to pull away from the inner surface of the eye (this situation may cause blindness in infants whose condition is severe enough)

Other factors that might contribute to the development of ROP besides prematurity, low birth weight, and excessive amounts of oxygen (which is not really a problem today), include:

  • Anemia
  • Blood transfusions
  • Respiratory distress
  • Breathing problems
  • The infant’s general health

There are some instances in which mistakes made by health care providers during the birthing process or shortly after birth contribute to the development of retinopathy of prematurity. Mistakes that can lead to ROP or the worsening of ROP include improper use of oxygen therapy, failure to recognize the symptoms of ROP and/or failure to provide timely treatment.

If your newborn baby is diagnosed with retinopathy of prematurity, you should speak with an ROP attorney to find out if you qualify to file a claim to seek compensation for your baby’s suffering. To learn more, schedule a free case review by contacting us today.