Wolff-Parkinson-White (WPW) syndrome is a disorder in which there is an extra electrical connection between the atria (the two upper chambers of the heart) and the ventricles (the two lower chambers of the heart). This extra connection can cause the heart to experience an arrhythmia, or irregular heartbeat.
Symptoms of Wolff-Parkinson-White Syndrome
Although present at birth, Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome is often undiagnosed until adolescence or adulthood. In fact, approximately 80 percent of all people who suffer from WPW are diagnosed between the ages of 11 and 50. It is often during this period of life that a person will start to experience heart palpitations or an irregular heartbeat. Often, this will occur after exercising.
Infants who have WPW may exhibit the following:
- poor appetite
- rapid, visible palpitations of the chest
- shortness of breath.
Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome often causes paroxysmal supraventricular tachycardia (PSVT), a relatively mild type of arrhythmia that causes the heart to beat too rapidly. In PSVT, instead of the normal 60 to 80 beats per minute, the heart rate rises to 180 to 240 beats per minute.
A person experiencing PSVT may:
- experience shortness of breath
- feel dizzy
- have chest pains.
While PSVT typically occurs suddenly and subsides quickly, it typically isn’t life threatening.
WPW can, however, lead to arterial fibrillation, a dangerous and sometimes life-threatening condition in which the upper chambers of the heart beat rapidly and chaotically. If left untreated, arterial fibrillation can lead to heart attack.
If your doctor thinks you might be suffering from Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome, she will likely perform an electrocardiography (ECG). This test can detect electrical abnormalities in the heart.
Treating Wolff-Parkinson-White Syndrome
If you have Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome but do not show any symptoms of the disorder your doctor might not prescribe any method of treatment. If a person experiences only infrequent minor arrhythmias, his doctor might suggest he limit stress in his daily life and avoid caffeine.
People who experience paroxysmal supraventricular tachycardia, however, will often need medication. Medications used to treat PSVT include:
- digoxin (typically only used in patients less than 10 years old)
Once the PSVT is controlled, your doctor might prescribe you anti-arrhythmia medication to control your heart rate.
If medication fails to control WPW, your doctor might suggest surgery. The most common procedure performed to interrupt the abnormal electrical connection is radiofrequency ablation, also called catheter ablation. During this procedure, a surgeon guides a catheter to the location of the problem. Next, he destroys the tissue using radiofrequency energy. This stops the electrical signal.
Radiofrequency ablation is successful for more than 95 percent of people who undergo the procedure. If the surgery is successful, the patient will not need to take medication for WPW.
American Heart Association (2007). Wolff-Parkinson-White Syndrome. Retrieved June 13, 2007, from American Heart Association Web site: http://www.americanheart.org/presenter.jhtml?identifier=4785.
Merck (2003). Wolff-Parkinson-White (WPW) Syndrome. Retrieved June 13, 2007, from Merck Web site: http://www.merck.com/mmhe/sec03/ch027/ch027e.htm.