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Unlike laser vision correction, which is an optional procedure for patients 18 years and older, laser eye therapy is a treatment that prevents blindness when newborn babies have certain complications of prematurity.
When a baby is born prematurely, many different health problems may occur. One common complication is retinopathy of prematurity. Normally, the blood vessels in the eyes would continue to develop through the eighth month of pregnancy, so a premature birth can disrupt the normal development and cause tiny blood vessels in the eye to grow abnormally.
Retinopathy of prematurity occurs when abnormal blood vessels start to grow in the retina (the layer of nerve tissue within the eye that makes vision possible). These blood vessels can detach the retina from the eye, causing blindness. In some mild cases, retinopathy of prematurity may resolve as your baby grows, but in severe cases, the abnormal blood vessels may continue to grow and cause vision loss or blindness. Laser eye therapy is a necessary treatment when retinopathy of prematurity puts your baby at risk for vision loss or blindness.
Laser eye therapy uses a very mild but specific beam of light to treat or remove the abnormal blood vessels. This specific beam of light can be focused on a very small area, allowing doctors to treat a condition very precisely while minimizing damage to surrounding healthy tissue. The word "laser" is short for light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation.
If your child is scheduled for laser eye therapy at Riley at IU Health, you will first meet with the doctor for a consultation visit before the procedure takes place. This is a great time to ask any questions you may have about the procedure and how it works.
Before the procedure begins, your baby will be given light sedation and/or pain medicine through an intravenous (IV) tube. The surgical team will monitor your baby’s breathing and heart rate closely during the procedure. The surgery may be done in an operating room or, in some cases, in your child’s hospital room.
The team will put eye drops into your baby’s eyes so that the pupils remain dilated. They will then gently insert a small tool called an eyelid speculum under the eyelids. This keeps the eyes from closing during the procedure. The pediatric ophthalmologist will use a laser to perform surgery on the retina. It takes around 30 to 45 minutes to treat each eye.
After the procedure, the nurse will place eye drops in your baby's eyes a few times a day to help the eyes heal.
Since laser eye therapy works by creating a small amount of scarring on the retina, there may still be some loss of vision. Retinopathy of prematurity cannot be completely reversed, but laser eye therapy helps to stop the progression and prevent complete blindness.
Your child should have yearly eye exams after this procedure in addition to any follow-up appointments you have with the pediatric ophthalmologist after the surgery.