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Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome

7-minute read

If you have chest pain, difficulty breathing or pass out, or someone near you does, you should call triple zero (000) and ask for an ambulance.

Key facts

  • Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome (WPW) is a condition that causes a fast heartbeat.
  • Some people have symptoms such as chest pain, others experience no other symptoms.
  • WPW can be diagnosed with tests such as an electrocardiogram (ECG).
  • Treatments for WPW include medicines and surgery.

What is Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome?

Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome (WPW) is a condition that causes episodes of tachycardia (fast heartbeat).

These episodes usually last between a few seconds and a few hours. They might be frequent (for example, every day) or occasional (for example, a few times per year). They can happen when you are exercising or resting.

WPW is a common cause of tachycardia in infants and children.

What are the symptoms of Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome?

As well as extremely fast heartbeat, symptoms of WPW include:

Young children might not be able to describe how they are feeling, but you might notice they:

  • are pale and restless
  • have a low appetite
  • are breathing fast

Some people with WPW show no symptoms at all.

What causes Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome?

When electrical signals reach your heart muscles, they contract. This causes blood to squeeze out of the heart and around the body. Then the muscle cells relax and blood flows back into the heart, ready to be pumped out again. The electrical signals in your heart follow a certain pathway along your nerve cells to keep your heartbeat regular.

If you have WPW, you have an extra electrical pathway. This causes electrical signals to race back and forth, and when this happens your heart beats extra fast.

The extra electrical pathway forms while your heart is developing before birth. Doctors don’t know what causes this. It may run in families. It may also be related to other heart conditions.

When should I see my doctor?

If you think you have WPW, even if you have no symptoms, you should see your doctor. They will discuss with you what further tests or treatments they recommend for your particular situation.

FIND A HEALTH SERVICE — The Service Finder can help you find doctors, pharmacies, hospitals and other health services.

How is Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome diagnosed?

Many heart conditions can cause similar symptoms. Before your doctor can work out the cause, you might need several tests.

An electrocardiogram (ECG) measures your heart’s electrical activity. When you are having an episode of tachycardia, the electrical activity caused by the extra electrical pathway shows up on an ECG.

Your doctor might also refer you to a cardiologist (heart specialist). A cardiologist might do extra tests to find out more about:

  • the severity of your condition
  • risks of problems in the future

ASK YOUR DOCTOR — Preparing for an appointment? Use the Question Builder for general tips on what to ask your GP or specialist.

How is Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome treated?

There are many treatment options for WPW depending on:

  • how severe your tachycardia episodes are
  • your chance of having serious problems

People with no symptoms or uncommon episodes usually don’t need any treatment.


Your doctor may prescribe medicines, such as antiarrhythmic medicines, to help treat your WPW.

Shock therapy

A type of therapy called electrical cardioversion uses an electrical shock to return your heart rate to normal.

Catheter ablation

A procedure called ‘catheter ablation’ can provide a permanent cure for most people with WPW.

A long wire called a catheter is inserted through a vein or artery and directed into your heart. This can be used to destroy your extra electrical pathway. This stops future episodes of tachycardia from happening.

Your cardiologist may recommend this procedure for you if you are at increased risk of a serious episode.

Can Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome be prevented?

There are ways to avoid or manage tachycardia episodes caused by WPW.

Preventing an episode that has started

Your doctor can advise you on ways to interrupt the abnormal electrical signals and slow down the fast heartbeats. They include:

  • massaging your neck
  • straining in a certain way — ask your doctor about the Valsalva manoeuvre

Preventing future episodes

Some things can trigger an episode of WPW. You can try to avoid:

Be sure to:

Complications of Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome

Untreated WPW can lead to complications such as:

Rarely, WPW can cause the heart to stop beating (cardiac arrest), which is a medical emergency that can be fatal.

Resources and support

  • The Heart Foundation has lots of information about heart conditions and more.
  • To find a support group for children, go to the HeartKids website or call their Helpline on 1800 912 758.

You can also call the healthdirect helpline on 1800 022 222 (known as NURSE-ON-CALL in Victoria). A registered nurse is available to speak with 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

CHECK YOUR SYMPTOMS — Use the Symptom Checker and find out if you need to seek medical help.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: October 2023

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