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What is Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome?
Wolff-Parkinson-White (WPW) syndrome is a rare heart condition in which there is an extra electrical pathway present in the heart. This can cause a change in the rhythm of your heartbeat, called an arrhythmia. People who have WPW syndrome may experience a very fast heartbeat (called tachycardia) for periods of time.
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What are the symptoms of WPW syndrome?
Symptoms of WPW syndrome can include:
- Palpitations or rapid thumping in your chest
- Feeling tired or light-headed
- Loss of consciousness (passing out)
- Shortness of breath
People who have WPW syndrome are born with the extra electrical pathway, but most don’t notice symptoms until they are in their teens or early twenties. Some people who have WPW syndrome never experience any symptoms.
What causes WPW syndrome?
The heart has 4 compartments, or chambers. The upper chambers are called the atria, and the lower chambers are called the ventricles. The walls of the heart squeeze together (contract) to push blood through the chambers. The contractions are controlled by an electrical signal that begins in the heart’s natural “pacemaker” (called the sinoatrial node).
In individuals who have WPW syndrome, an extra electrical pathway can cause the electrical signal to arrive at the ventricles too soon. This can lead to periods of very fast heart rate, which is called tachycardia.
How do I know if I have WPW syndrome?
If you sometimes have an irregular or very fast heart beat, your doctor will ask if you have any of the symptoms of WPW syndrome. Your doctor may also do some tests. One of these tests is an electrocardiogram, also called ECG or EKG. During this test, your doctor will have you lie down so your heart can be monitored.
Your doctor may also ask you to walk on a treadmill while he or she monitors your heart, or may want to monitor your heart while you do your daily activities. One way to do this is to wear a machine, called a Holter monitor, that continuously records your heart’s rhythms for 24 hours. If your doctor wants to monitor your heart for more than 24 hours, he or she might recommend an event-recorder, a machine that records samples of your heart’s rhythms and can be worn for a couple of days or longer. Other tests, called electrophysiologic studies, may also give your doctor information about your heart.
How is it treated?
There are several treatment options available for WPW syndrome. You doctor may talk to you about vagal maneuvers. These are actions you can do to help slow your heart rate. These actions can include coughing or pushing down like you are having a bowel movement. If vagal maneuvers don’t help slow your heart rate, your doctor may prescribe an anti-arrhythmic medicine. For some people, surgery may also be an option.
Questions to Ask Your Doctor
- What is the likely cause of my symptoms?
- Was I born with WPW syndrome?
- Do I need treatment? What treatment option is best for me? Will I need medicine? Surgery?
- Will the medicine you’re prescribing interact with medicine(s) I already take?
- Are there any medicines that could make my WPW syndrome worse?
- What symptoms will indicate that my condition is getting worse?
- Does WPW syndrome put me at risk for any long-term problems?
- Do I need to make any lifestyle changes at home?
- Is it safe for me to exercise? What kind of exercise should I do?
- American Heart Association. Wolff-Parkinson-White Syndrome. Accessed 05/11/10
- The Cleveland Clinic. Wolff-Parkinson-White Syndrome (WPW). Accessed 05/11/10
- Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. Wolff-Parkinson-White (WPW) syndrome: Treaments and drugs. Accessed 05/11/10
- Mitchell L. Wolff-Parkinson-White (WPW) Syndrome. Accessed 05/11/10
- Weinrauch L. Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome. Accessed 05/11/10
Copyright © American Academy of Family Physicians
This information provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. Talk to your family doctor to find out if this information applies to you and to get more information on this subject.