Cardiac Conditions: Wolff-Parkinson-White Syndrome


At Cardiac Science, we’re dedicated to raising awareness of all the potential causes of sudden cardiac arrest, to help save lives across the globe.

That’s why, as part of a series on conditions that affect cardiac rhythm, we’re exploring Wolff-Parkinson-White Syndrome – thought to affect between 1 and 3 people in every 1,000 in the UK.

What is Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome?

Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome (WPW) affects how electrical signals pass through the heart.

In a ‘normal’ heart, electrical signals follow a specific pathway, causing the heart to beat in a regular rhythm.

But if you have WPW syndrome, the signals also pass through an extra or ‘accessory’ pathway, between the upper and lower chambers of the heart. This can cause the heart to suddenly beat abnormally quickly, in a rhythm called supraventricular tachycardia (SVT). This can be diagnosed with an ECG (electrocardiogram).

However, it can be trickier to spot WPW syndrome if the arrhythmia comes and goes. So holter monitoring, electrophysiological (EP) studies, or an implantable loop recorder (ILR) may be required to achieve a full diagnosis.

Causes of Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome

Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome is most commonly found  in people who are born with a congenital heart condition. However, it can also occur in people with structurally ‘normal’ hearts.

While the condition can be genetically inherited, this is extremely rare.

In fact, most people experience symptoms ‘out of the blue’ between the ages of 30 and 40, and it’s more common in men than women.

Episodes can be triggered by things like strenuous exercise, caffeine, or alcohol. So if you’re diagnosed with Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome, speak to your doctor about what lifestyle changes you may need to make  to help you maintain a healthy heart rhythm.

Symptoms of Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome

Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome symptoms usually only take hold after the heart starts beating abnormally fast. For some patients this happens daily – for others, only a few times a year. In fact, many patients live with no symptoms at all.

However, during an ‘episode,’ symptoms of WPW can include palpitations, dizziness, shortness of breath, chest tightness or discomfort, sweating, fainting, a low tolerance for physical activity, and/or a pulse that’s too fast to count.

In children, WPW syndrome can also cause chest pain, rapid or difficulty breathing, an ashen colour, poor eating, and/or restlessness / irritability.

Is Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome life-threatening?

WPW syndrome can occasionally be life-threatening. If it occurs alongside a type of irregular heartbeat called atrial fibrillation, or if the heart has been racing for over 30 minutes, the condition can lead to sudden cardiac arrest.

For this reason, if someone with Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome experiences fainting or blackouts or collapses, this should be treated as a medical emergency.

Find out more about what to do in the event of sudden cardiac arrest here.

That said, life-threatening complications of WPW syndrome are still very rare, and the right treatment can eliminate your risk.

Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome treatment

Treatments for WPW syndrome can vary in severity, from leaving the condition to settle down on its own, to open-heart surgery. It all depends on the severity and frequency of your symptoms.

During an episode, medics might use ‘vagal manoeuvres’ to stimulate the nerve that slows down the electrical signals in your heart.

If this doesn’t help, electrical cardioversion – or an injection of medicine such as adenosine – can help to block the abnormal electrical signals, and bring your heart rate back to normal.

At the more invasive end of the scale, treatments include implanting an artificial pacemaker, open-heart surgery (usually only done if there are multiple cardiac issues that need addressing),  or catheter ablation. This procedure is used to disrupt abnormal electrical pathways in the heart, and is effective in around 95% of cases.

Alternatively, you can help prevent episodes in the longer term by avoiding triggers like alcohol, caffeine, and strenuous exercise, and taking medication.

Protecting people with cardiac conditions in the community

Many people with cardiac conditions such as Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome have no symptoms at all. Episodes can come on suddenly, taking patients and bystanders by surprise – and on rare occasions, they can lead to cardiac arrest.

That’s why communities need to be ready. And at Cardiac Science, we’re here to help. By raising awareness of the signs of sudden cardiac arrest, and helping to place lifesaving defibrillators in public places across the UK.

Contact us today.

Contact us today to find out how to order a defibrillator for your place of work, community, or local leisure centre. You might just help to save a life.

Learn more about sudden cardiac arrest and defibrillators in our Education hub

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