Wolff-Parkinson-White Syndrome

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PatientPlus articles are written by UK doctors and are based on research evidence, UK and European Guidelines. They are designed for health professionals to use, so you may find the language more technical than the condition leaflets.

Wolff-Parkinson-White (WPW) syndrome is the most common of the ventricular pre-excitation syndromes. Others include Lown-Ganong-Levine syndrome and Mahaim-type pre-excitation. They are important because of the association with paroxysmal tachycardias that can result in serious cardiovascular complications and sudden death. In ECG terms they are important to recognise, because of the risk of misdiagnosis. WPW syndrome was first described by Drs Wolff, Parkinson, and White in 1930.[1] 

WPW syndrome is a congenital abnormality which can result in supraventricular tachycardia (SVT) that uses an atrioventricular (AV) accessory tract. The accessory pathway may also allow conduction during other supraventricular arrhythmias, such as atrial fibrillation or flutter. The majority of patients with ECG findings of pre-excitation do not develop tachyarrhythmias. WPW syndrome is classified into two types according to the ECG findings:

  • Type A: the delta wave and QRS complex are predominantly upright in the precordial leads. The dominant R wave in lead V1 may be misinterpreted as right bundle branch block.
  • Type B: the delta wave and QRS complex are predominantly negative in leads V1 and V2 and positive in the other precordial leads, resembling left bundle branch block.
  • An accessory pathway is likely to be congenital, although it presents in later years and may appear to be acquired.
  • May be associated with congenital cardiac defects, Ebstein's anomaly, mitral valve prolapse, hypertrophic cardiomyopathy or other cardiomyopathies.

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  • WPW syndrome is relatively common and found in 2 to 4 people per 1,000 population.
  • In adults, it is more common in males.[2]
  • WPW syndrome is found in all ages, although it is most common in young, previously healthy people. Prevalence decreases with age because of loss of pre-excitation.
  • WPW syndrome is a developmental anomaly as well as a congenital anomaly. WPW syndrome in infancy often disappears and may recur in later childhood. Studies suggest that the prevalence of WPW syndrome is significantly lower in children aged 6 to 13 years than in those aged 14 to 15 years.[3] 
  • SVT in WPW syndrome may begin in childhood or not appear clinically until middle age.
  • Asymptomatic: may be detected on incidental ECG.[4] 
  • Symptomatic: palpitations, light-headedness or syncope.
  • The tachycardia that produces symptoms may be an SVT, atrial fibrillation, or atrial flutter.
  • Paroxysmal SVT can be followed after termination by polyuria, which is due to atrial dilatation and release of atrial natriuretic factor.
  • Sudden death: from deterioration of pre-excited atrial fibrillation into ventricular fibrillation.[5] 
  • During SVT, the rhythm is constant and regular, with constant intensity of the first heart sound.
  • The jugular venous pressure may be elevated but the waveform remains constant.
  • Clinical features of associated cardiac defects may be present - eg, mitral valve prolapse, cardiomyopathy.

ECG[7]

WOLFF-PARKINSON-WHITE SYNDROME
  • The electrical impulse may travel at the same speed as along the normal system (bundle of His), with no pre-excitation and the ECG is normal. The condition is described as latent, until the rate exceeds the refractory period of the AV node.
  • Classic ECG findings of WPW syndrome include a short PR interval (less than 120 ms), a wide QRS complex of longer than 120 ms with a slurred onset producing a delta wave in the early part of QRS and secondary ST-T wave changes.[8][9] 
  • Repolarisation abnormalities are common in patients with WPW syndrome.
  • AV re-entry tachycardia, or circus movement tachycardia:
    • The accessory pathway only conducts in a retrograde manner and the condition remains latent until triggered.
    • A premature atrial extrasystole, finding the accessory pathway refractory, travels via the AV node, with reactivation back from the ventricles along the accessory pathway (retrograde conduction), if time has allowed recovery of excitability.
    • Therefore, a circuit is established, being seen as a tachycardia, with normal QRS but with inverted P waves (because of retrograde atrial activation).
  • Pre-excited atrial fibrillation:
    • Conduction is rapid, avoiding any rate-limiting effect of the AV node, the accessory pathway having a much shorter anterograde refractory period. Ventricular response is thus not limited.
    • Hypotension, by causing a sympathetic response, can further shorten the refractory period and ventricular fibrillation may result.
    • The appearance is irregular, variable QRS (normal to wide complex), at rates often around 250 beats per minute.
  • There is a much rarer form of AV tachycardia with anterograde conduction via the accessory pathway and retrograde conduction via the AV node, seen as a regular, rapid, broad-complex tachycardia.

Other investigations

  • A variety of recording devices can be used if arrhythmias are infrequent, including 24-hour Holter monitors, event monitors and implantable loop recorders.
  • Stress testing may help to diagnose transient paroxysmal dysrhythmia, determine the relationship between exercise and tachycardia or evaluate the effect of medication.
  • Routine blood tests may be needed to help rule out non-cardiac conditions triggering tachycardia - eg, FBC, U&E and creatinine, LFTs, TFTs and blood levels of anti-arrhythmic drugs.
  • Echocardiogram: may be needed to assess left ventricular function and wall motion and to help rule out valvular disease, Ebstein's anomaly, hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (in which the incidence of accessory pathways is increased), or other congenital cardiac defects.
  • Intracardiac or oesophageal electrophysiological studies may be useful in identifying accessory pathways and during surgery to map areas that require ablation.

Asymptomatic patients may just need periodic review. The main forms of treatment are drug therapy, radiofrequency (RF) ablation and surgical ablation. Ablation is the first-line treatment for symptomatic WPW syndrome. It has replaced surgical treatment and most drug treatments.[10] Drug treatment may still be appropriate for patients who refuse ablation or as an interim control measure if they are at high risk of complications.

  • Patients who present with tachyarrhythmic symptoms require drug therapy to prevent further episodes. Drugs used include amiodarone and sotalol.[11] 
  • A membrane-active anti-arrhythmic drug (class IC or III) should be used with an AV nodal blocker, rather than just an AV nodal blocker, because of the potential for extremely rapid rates during pre-excited atrial fibrillation or flutter.
  • Digoxin is contra-indicated in patients with WPW syndrome. Most deaths from WPW syndrome have been associated with digoxin use.

Termination of an acute episode

  • Narrow-complex AV re-entrant tachycardia is treated in the same way as AVNRT, by blocking AV node conduction. Options include:
    • Vagal manoeuvres - eg, Valsalva, carotid sinus massage, splashing cold water or ice water on the face.
    • Intravenous adenosine (or intravenous verapamil or diltiazem if there is recurrent SVT, adenosine is ineffective or if the patient is taking theophylline). Intravenous procainamide or esmolol have also been used in resistant cases. Do not use adenosine if atrial fibrillation is suspected, as blocking the AV node can paradoxically increase ventricular rate, resulting in fall in cardiac output (ventricular refractory period after a normally conducted impulse through AV node may be critical in maintaining cardiac output) - cardioversion is more appropriate.
  • Atrial fibrillation can occur after drug administration, particularly adenosine, with a rapid ventricular response. An external cardioverter-defibrillator should be immediately available.
  • Atrial flutter/fibrillation or wide-complex tachycardia
    • Atrial flutter/fibrillation causes abnormal QRS complexes and irregular R-R intervals.
    • Cardioversion may be the best option, as conventional drugs such as digoxin, beta-blockers, or calcium-channel blockers, may paradoxically increase the ventricular rate, with risk of ventricular fibrillation.
    • The preferred choice of an antiarrhythmic medication for a patient presenting with pre-excited AF while waiting for a catheter ablation, is flecainide.[11] 

Long-term maintenance treatment

  • Response to long-term anti-arrhythmic therapy for the prevention of further episodes of tachycardia in patients with WPW syndrome is unpredictable. Some drugs may paradoxically make the reciprocating tachycardia more frequent.
  • Two-drug therapy has been used.
  • Class III drugs (eg, amiodarone, sotalol) are effective but should not be given if the patient has structural heart disease. Class III drugs are usually used with an AV nodal blocking agent.

Radiofrequency ablation

  • RF ablation is increasingly being used both in common types of arrhythmia and selected asymptomatic patients, with a 95% success rate.[12]
  • This follows electrophysiological studies to determine the site of the accessory pathway. Rarely, there may be more than one accessory pathway.
  • This is superseding open-heart surgical disconnection and cardiac pacing.
  • Patients who have accessory pathways with short refractory periods do not respond well to drug treatments and are best treated with ablation.
  • Indications for RF ablation include:
    • Patients with symptomatic AV re-entrant tachycardia.
    • Atrial fibrillation or other atrial tachyarrhythmias that have rapid ventricular rates via a bypass tract.
    • Asymptomatic patients with ventricular pre-excitation, whose livelihood, profession, insurability or mental well-being may be influenced by unpredictable tachyarrhythmias or in whom such tachyarrhythmias would endanger the safety of themselves or others.[13]
    • Patients with atrial fibrillation and a controlled ventricular response via the bypass tract.
    • Patients with a family history of sudden cardiac death.

Surgical ablation

  • Although largely superseded by RF ablation, surgical ablation may still be indicated for patients in whom RF ablation has failed, those who need heart surgery for other reasons and for those patients with multifocal abnormalities requiring surgical ablation (rare).
  • Tachyarrhythmia:
    • WPW syndrome can present with several forms of tachydysrhythmia, depending on the pathway of the aberrant rhythm, including reciprocating tachycardias and atrial fibrillation.[14] 
    • Increased risk of dangerous ventricular arrhythmias due to fast conduction across the bypass tract if they develop atrial flutter or fibrillation.[15] 
    • Digoxin and perhaps other AV nodal blocking agents may accelerate conduction through the bypass tract, causing potentially lethal ventricular arrhythmias or haemodynamic instability during atrial fibrillation.
  • Sudden cardiac death:
    • Occurs rarely.
    • Other factors that appear to influence risk are the presence of multiple bypass tracts and a family history of premature sudden death.
    • Sudden cardiac death is unusual without preceding symptoms.
  • Prognosis is usually very good once treated.[16] Catheter ablation may be curative.
  • The prognosis depends on the intrinsic electrophysiological properties of the accessory pathway rather than on symptoms.[17] 
  • Sudden cardiac death is rare but may occur due to arrhythmia or the management of arrhythmia with inappropriate drugs.
  • In asymptomatic patients, the capacity for antegrade conduction across the accessory pathway often decreases with age. This is probably due to fibrotic changes at the site of insertion of the accessory bypass tract.

Further reading & references

  1. Scheinman MM; The history of the Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome. Rambam Maimonides Med J. 2012 Jul 31;3(3):e0019. doi: 10.5041/RMMJ.10083. Print 2012 Jul.
  2. Klein GJ, Gula LJ, Krahn AD, et al; WPW pattern in the asymptomatic individual: has anything changed? Circ Arrhythm Electrophysiol. 2009 Apr;2(2):97-9. doi: 10.1161/CIRCEP.109.859827.
  3. Jung HJ, Ju HY, Hyun MC, et al; Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome in young people, from childhood to young adulthood: relationships between age and clinical and electrophysiological findings. Korean J Pediatr. 2011 Dec;54(12):507-11. doi: 10.3345/kjp.2011.54.12.507. Epub 2011 Dec 31.
  4. Liu A, Pusalkar P; Asymptomatic Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome: incidental ECG diagnosis and a review of literature regarding current treatment. BMJ Case Rep. 2011 Jun 29;2011. pii: bcr0520114192. doi: 10.1136/bcr.05.2011.4192.
  5. Obeyesekere M, Gula LJ, Skanes AC, et al; Risk of sudden death in Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome: how high is the risk? Circulation. 2012 Feb 7;125(5):659-60. doi: 10.1161/CIRCULATIONAHA.111.085159. Epub 2012 Jan 3.
  6. Marrakchi S, Kammoun I, Kachboura S; Wolff-Parkinson-white syndrome mimics a conduction disease. Case Rep Med. 2014;2014:789537. doi: 10.1155/2014/789537. Epub 2014 Jul 9.
  7. ECG Library
  8. Chadha S, Kulbak G, Yang F, et al; The delta wave in Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome. QJM. 2013 Dec;106(12):1147-8. doi: 10.1093/qjmed/hcs211. Epub 2012 Oct 29.
  9. Soo WM, Chong E, Teo SG, et al; ECG delta waves in patients with palpitation. Singapore Med J. 2011 Feb;52(2):68-71; quiz 72.
  10. Cai Q, Shuraih M, Nagueh SF; The use of echocardiography in Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome. Int J Cardiovasc Imaging. 2012 Apr;28(4):725-34. doi: 10.1007/s10554-011-9880-8. Epub 2011 May 1.
  11. Svendsen JH, Dagres N, Dobreanu D, et al; Current strategy for treatment of patients with Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome and asymptomatic preexcitation in Europe: European Heart Rhythm Association survey. Europace. 2013 May;15(5):750-3. doi: 10.1093/europace/eut094.
  12. Wissner E, Ouyang F, Kuck KH; Examining the causes of ablation failure in the Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome. Europace. 2010 Jun;12(6):772-3. Epub 2010 May 13.
  13. Rosenheck S; The mystery of asymptomatic Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome. Isr Med Assoc J. 2010 Nov;12(11):701-2.
  14. O'Connell M, Bernard A; A serious cause of panic attack. Case Rep Emerg Med. 2012;2012:393275. doi: 10.1155/2012/393275. Epub 2012 Jun 12.
  15. Kozluk E, Timler D, Zysko D, et al; Members of the emergency medical team may have difficulty diagnosing rapid atrial fibrillation in Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome. Cardiol J. 2014 Nov 27. doi: 10.5603/CJ.a2014.0086.
  16. Pappone C, Vicedomini G, Manguso F, et al; Risk of Malignant Arrhythmias in Initially Symptomatic Patients with WPW Circulation. 2012 Jan 3.
  17. Pappone C, Vicedomini G, Manguso F, et al; Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome in the era of catheter ablation: insights from a registry study of 2169 patients. Circulation. 2014 Sep 2;130(10):811-9. doi: 10.1161/CIRCULATIONAHA.114.011154. Epub 2014 Jul 22.

Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. EMIS has used all reasonable care in compiling the information but make no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details see our conditions.

Original Author:
Dr Colin Tidy
Current Version:
Peer Reviewer:
Dr John Cox
Document ID:
2941 (v26)
Last Checked:
16/02/2015
Next Review:
15/02/2020