What is Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome?

Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome is a rare heart condition that occurs when an extra electrical pathway in the heart causes an abnormally fast heart rate.

Wolff-Parkinson-White affects one to three out of every 1,000 people in the United States.

Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome isn’t typically lethal, but if left untreated, serious heart problems can occur.

Tachycardia Arrhythmia (Fast Heartbeat) Bradycardia Arrhythmia (Slow Heartbeat) Atrial Fibrillation (AFib) Atrial Flutter

Causes of Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome

Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome is a heart arrhythmia that is present at birth. Infants with Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome are born with an extra electrical pathway in the heart that can cause a rapid heartbeat. In some patients, the condition is caused by a gene mutation.

Risk factors of Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome

Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome is associated with other congenital heart defects. Boys are more likely to develop the condition than females.

Symptoms of Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome

Approximately 40 percent of patients with Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome do not develop symptoms. If you are symptomatic, symptoms of mild to moderate Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome can include:

  • Heart palpitations (rapid heartbeat)
  • Fainting
  • Fatigue
  • Anxiety
  • Shortness of breath

The rapid heartbeat associated with Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome can last from a few seconds to hours. Symptoms of the condition can also disappear over time.

In patients who have severe Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome, they could experience:

  • Chest pain
  • Chest tightness
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Fainting

Infants born with Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome may look ashen, not be interested in eating, may have rapid breathing or are irritable.

Diagnosis of Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome

Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome can be diagnosed in a physical exam with your doctor. The physician will take a full medical history and order diagnostic tests including:

  • Electrocardiogram (EKG) — provides images of the electrical activities in the heart.
  • Holter or event monitor — a portable EKG machine that can record heart rhythm and activity over a period.
  • EP study (electrophysiology studies) — maps the electrical activity during a heartbeat to determine if you have an extra pathway.

Treatment for Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome

Treatment for Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome may not be necessary if you are not feeling any symptoms. If you are symptomatic, treatments could include:

  • Medication — your doctor may prescribe beta blockers or calcium channel blockers to slow the heart or anti-arrhythmic medications to restore heart rhythm.
  • Radiofrequency ablation — a procedure where the extra electrical pathway is ablated, a permanent correction to cure Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome.
  • Electrical cardioversion — a procedure that shocks the heart back into normal rhythm, used when medication is not effective in relieving symptoms.

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