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Wolff-Parkinson-White (WPW) syndrome

In Wolff-Parkinson-White (WPW) syndrome, an extra electrical pathway between your heart's upper chambers (atria) and lower chambers (ventricles) causes a rapid heartbeat (tachycardia).

The extra electrical pathway is present at birth and fairly rare. WPW is detected in about 4 out of every 100,000 people. People of all ages, including infants, can experience the symptoms related to Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome. Most people with symptoms first experience them between the ages of 11 and 50.

The episodes of fast heartbeats usually aren't life-threatening, but serious heart problems can occur. Treatment for Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome can stop or prevent episodes of fast heartbeats. A catheter-based procedure, known as ablation, can permanently correct the heart rhythm problems.


Symptoms Causes Complications

Symptoms of Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome are the result of a fast heart rate. They most often appear for the first time in people in their teens or 20s. Common symptoms of WPW syndrome include:

  • Sensation of rapid, fluttering or pounding heartbeats (palpitations)
  • Dizziness
  • Lightheadedness
  • Fainting
  • Tiring easily during exercise
  • Anxiety

An episode of a very fast heartbeat can begin suddenly and last for a few seconds or several hours. Episodes often happen during exercise.  Caffeine or other stimulants and alcohol may be a trigger for some people.  Over time, symptoms of WPW may disappear in as many as 25 percent of people who experience them.

Symptoms in more-serious cases

About 10 to 30 percent of people with Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome occasionally experience a type of irregular heartbeat known as atrial fibrillation. In these people WPW signs and symptoms may include:

  • Chest pain
  • Chest tightness
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Rarely, sudden death

Symptoms in infants

Symptoms in infants with Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome may include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Lack of alertness or activity
  • Poor eating
  • Fast heartbeats visible on the chest

No symptoms

Most people who have an extra electrical pathway in the heart experience no fast heartbeat and no symptoms. This condition, called Wolff-Parkinson-White pattern, is discovered only by chance when a person is undergoing a heart exam for other reasons. Wolff-Parkinson-White pattern is harmless in many people. But doctors may recommend further evaluation before children with WPW pattern participate in high-intensity sports.

When to see a doctor

A number of conditions can cause irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia). It's important to get a prompt, accurate diagnosis and appropriate care. See your doctor if you or your child experiences any symptoms associated with Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome.

Call 911 or your local emergency number if you experience any of the following symptoms for more than a few minutes:

  • Rapid or irregular heartbeat
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Chest pain

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