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What is Wolff-Parkinson-White Syndrome?

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  • Written By: Laura M. Sands
  • Edited By: Heather Bailey
  • Last Modified Date: 14 November 2016
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Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome (WPW) is a rare congenital heart defect. Specifically, it is characterized by a second electrical circuit being present inside of the heart. The additional circuitry is also sometimes referred to as a bundle of Kent. As a rare condition, bundle of Kent causes an abnormal heart rate or an increased heart rate, also referred to as tachycardia.

Most normal hearts rely on only one circuit pathway for transmitting electrical signals from the upper heart chambers to the lower ones. These signals are crucial to the body’s survival in that they regulate the heart’s beating. When these signals are interrupted or incorrectly sent, the result is an arrhythmia, or irregular heartbeat.

Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome causes electrical signals to be sent too soon. As a result, the heart’s rhythm is interrupted and too many heart beats may occur. When this happens, a person begins to feel distinct physical symptoms, which are not usually fatal, but are serious and may lead to death.

Although a person is born with Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome and may experience signs of the disorder as a toddler, in some people symptoms are not always immediately realized and people may be largely unaware that the condition exists. In fact, in most cases, individuals don’t begin experiencing symptoms until the teen and young adult years. Though less common, some do not experience Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome symptoms until much later in life when they are entering their senior years.

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Infants and young children with Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome can succumb to early heart failure. Initial symptoms, such as a lack of appetite, very cool skin and fatigue serve as warning signs that a child is ill. These children may also have heartbeats that are visible to the eye and appear to be racing. At the same time, parents and caretakers may notice that the child is experiencing breathing difficulties.

Teenagers with Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome experience similar symptoms as those of infant sufferers, but tachycardia usually occurs as the result of exercise and may result in a loss of consciousness. Some young sufferers also report chest pain. These symptoms may lead to fatalities during teen years if the condition is not discovered and treated in time.

Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome is commonly treated by catheter ablation. In this procedure, a catheter is inserted into the heart and energy produced by radiofrequency is used to destroy the bundle of Kent tissue and stop additional signaling. Although Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome can be fatal, most people are successfully treated using catheter ablation or are able to successfully treat the condition with medications used to treat tachycardia.

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