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What causes retinopathy of prematurity (ROP)?

Retinopathy of prematurity (ROP) occurs when abnormal blood vessels grow and spread throughout the retina. The blood vessels of the retina begin to develop 3 months after conception and complete their development at the time of normal birth. If an infant is born very prematurely, eye development can be disrupted. The vessels may stop growing or grow abnormally from the retina into the normally clear gel that fills the back of the eye. These vessels are fragile and can leak, causing bleeding in the eye and development of scar tissue. This scar tissue may pull the retina loose from the inner surface of the eye or retinal detachment. Retinal detachment is the main cause of visual impairment and blindness in ROP

Doctors do not know for certain what causes retinopathy of prematurity (ROP). Blood vessels in the eye normally finish developing in the last few weeks before birth. Premature infants, however, leave the protective uterus before blood vessels of the eye have had a chance to fully develop. The infants are then exposed to elements, such as medication, high levels of oxygen, and light and temperature changes. These factors may interfere with the normal development of blood vessels in the eye and cause ROP.
Other factors that may have an effect on ROP development include:
  • Low birth weight;
  • Low gestational age (a 12-week premature baby has a greater risk of developing ROP than an eight-week premature baby);
  • Use of supplemental oxygen after birth;
  • Vitamin E deficiency;
  • Race (Caucasians are more at risk than African-Americans);
  • Anemia;
  • Respiratory complications

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.