Wolff-Parkinson-White Syndrome

What is Wolff-Parkinson-White Syndrome?

Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome is a condition that affects the heart. It specifically causes a problem with the rhythm of the heart. The heart has electrical pathways for signals to travel through so that the heart can pump blood at the right rhythm and pace.

When a person suffers from Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome, they have one more electrical pathway than a heart not affected by this syndrome. Some of the signals that travel between the upper and lower chambers of the heart will move through that extra pathway, causing problems with the communications between the chambers of the heart.

This is a heart condition that is present when a person is born. There are some cases of Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome that are caused by a genetic mutation, but the condition can also be linked to congenital heart disease and other heart conditions. However, most of the time, the exact cause of Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome is not known.

What are the Symptoms of Wolff-Parkinson-White Syndrome?

The most common symptom of Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome is a fast or rapid heartbeat. This does not happen all the time and the frequency of the spells of tachycardia (rapid heartbeat) varies from person to person.

Chest tightness or pain can also occur with this condition as well as fainting, dizziness, lightheadedness, and the like. A person may also feel short of breath or have difficulty breathing as well as feel fatigued when exercising with Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome.

Wolff-Parkinson-White Syndrome Causes

In Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome (also commonly abbreviated to WPW), the heart has an abnormal electrical system which has an extra electrical pathway that connects the atria and ventricles. This extra pathway is present at birth and results in two different types of heartbeat rhythm disturbances: looped electrical impulses and disorganized electrical impulses. An abnormal gene has been shown to be the cause of the familial form of WPW.

However, only a small portion of known cases have been shown to be the familial type. This type of WPW generally has a pattern of inheritance known as autosomal dominant. This means that only a single copy of an altered gene in each cell is enough to bring about the condition. Familial Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome sufferers have most often inherited the condition from one or another affected parent.

Infants are also prone to some forms of congenital heart disease, such as Ebstein’s anomaly, which can lead to WPW. The statistics show that about 15% of infants who are affected by WPW also have other heart problems such as the aforementioned Ebstein’s anomaly. It is interesting to note that the supraventricular tachycardia present in infants with Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome will generally resolve itself in about half of the cases. The other half can have lifelong complications which need to be routinely checked by a cardiologist.

Further, the heart rhythm problems related to Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome can be a component of a few other genetic syndromes, including hypokalemic periodic paralysis, Pompe disease, Danon disease, and tuberous sclerosis complex.

How is Wolff-Parkinson-White Syndrome Treated?

There are medications that can help with the symptoms of Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome. These medications are designed to stop or prevent arrhythmias from occurring in the heart. There also medications that slow the heart rate that may help with the condition as well.

Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome can also be treated with a procedure known as cardioversion in which paddles or pads are used to send an electrical charge to the heart and restore it to a normal rhythm. A catheter ablation procedure may also be useful in cases of Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome that do not respond to other treatments. The tube (catheter) is threaded through the blood vessels and electrodes attached to the catheter ablate or destroy the extra electrical pathway in the heart so that it does not continue to cause heart rhythm problems.

Sometimes, the process of destroying the extra pathway can be done during open heart surgery if other heart repairs need to be done.

Wolff-Parkinson-White Syndrome Prevention

Any prevention of this condition has remained elusive since the exact cause is not particularly known. There are still many researchers who are working to determine what might help to prevent a child from being born with that extra electrical pathway which causes the issues.

Last Reviewed:
October 11, 2016
Last Updated:
September 08, 2017