Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome (WPW) is a rare condition where there is an extra electrical pathway in the heart. WPW can be caused by a gene mutation or it can be a form of congenital heart disease, most commonly an Ebstein's anomaly. The human heart has four chambers. The two upper chambers are called atria and the two lower chambers are called ventricles. A heart that beats normally receives an electrical signal that moves from the atria to the ventricles. In WPW, an extra electrical signal pathway acts like a shortcut so that the signal arrives too early to the ventricle, which may cause a very fast heartbeat (tachycardia). This event is also called paroxysmal supraventricular tachycardia (PVST). The extra electrical pathway is present at birth (congenital) but symptoms usually appear between the ages of 11 and 50. Some people with WPW never have any symptoms.
The symptoms of WPW are caused by the rapid heartbeat and may vary greatly in severity. Symptoms may include fluttering or pounding heartbeats (palpitations), dizziness, lightheadedness, fainting, and anxiety. Episodes of rapid heart rate, known to last anywhere from a few seconds to several hours, are often caused by exercise, caffeine, or alcohol. More serious symptoms include chest pain, chest tightness, difficulty breathing and in rare cases, cardiac arrest.
A diagnosis can be made by using blood tests, chest X-rays, or an electrocardiogram (where sensors are placed on your body to measure the electrical signals). Some people with WPW do not need treatment. Treatment may include using several body movements to help lower heart rate if an episode occurs. For those with more serious WPW, medications and a special heart therapy are available. Research is ongoing, so talk to your cardiologist (heart doctor) about the most current treatment options. Support groups are also a good source of information and can connect you with others living with heart arrhythmias.