Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome

Wolff-Parkinson-White (WPW) syndrome is a heart condition that makes your heart beat abnormally fast, in an abnormal rhythm called supraventricular tachycardia (SVT).

If you’ve recently been told you have Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome you may be concerned, however, it’s not usually serious and can normally be cured with the right treatment. It can be dangerous if you also have the heart condition atrial fibrillation, but this is rare.

What are the symptoms of WPW syndrome?

People with WPW syndrome may not get any symptoms, and the condition often goes undetected until later in life. 

If you do develop symptoms, these can include:

  • palpitations
  • feeling light-headed or dizzy
  • fainting
  • shortness of breath
  • sweating
  • chest pain or discomfort.

Symptoms will affect people differently. They can affect people for minutes, seconds or hours. In a few cases they can last for days. How often they happen can also vary, with some people being affected daily, while others may only experience them a few times a year.

They can sometimes be triggered by strenuous exercise, drinking a lot of alcohol or caffeine. 

What causes it WPW syndrome?

To keep your heart pumping, the sinus node – known as your heart’s natural pacemaker – sends electrical signals through your heart. These signals cause your heart muscle to contract.

If you have WPW syndrome, there’s an extra electrical pathway (called an accessory pathway) in the heart, which is caused by additional tissue in the area of your heart which the electrical signals travel through. This causes signals to bypass the usual route. This acts a bit like a short circuit, triggering an episode of supraventricular tachycardia, or SVT.

An accessory pathway is present from birth and WPW syndrome is most common in babies born with other types of heart defects (congenital heart disease). However, it’s also seen in people who have structurally normal hearts. WPW syndrome can be inherited, although this is extremely rare.

How is WPW syndrome diagnosed?Electrocardiogram

An ECG (electrocardiogram) is used to record your hearts rhythm. If you have WPW syndrome your ECG would usually show a delta wave. This is an unusual pattern that isn’t usually seen in people who don’t have the condition.

An ECG can also help diagnose SVT, although if it comes and goes it can be difficult to detect using a normal ECG. You may need to have a 24-hour ECG monitor, a cardiac event recorder or an implantable loop recorder. These devices record the hearts activity over a longer period of time or when symptoms occur.

Will I need treatment for WPW syndrome?

In some cases, you won’t need treatment and your condition will settle down on its own. If this isn’t the case, you may be asked to carry out vagal manoeuvres – these are techniques that your cardiologist may recommend to stop episodes as they occur, which stimulate the nerve that slows down the electrical signals in your heart.

Your cardiologist may also recommend ablation or cardioversion and, you may also need to take antiarrhythmic medication, such as beta blockers or calcium channel blockers. 

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