The bundle of in Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome bypasses the atrioventricular node and allows the ventricles to depolarize sooner.
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An 18-year-old Caucasian woman comes to the emergency department with her parents after she recently stopped breathing and collapsed while playing volleyball. She was diagnosed with a heart condition seven years ago and has no past surgical history. She is currently disoriented and showed signs of focal deficits, indicative of a minor stroke. Prior to the episode, she felt like “like her heart was racing” and that this feeling would go away and then return, especially on exertion. An electrocardiogram is obtained, showing intermittent tachycardia with a short PR-interval and a widened QRS-complex. Which of the following is the most likely diagnosis?
Content Reviewers:Rishi Desai, MD, MPH, Tanner Marshall, MS, Tanner Marshall, MS, Tanner Marshall, MS, Tanner Marshall, MS, Tanner Marshall, MS
Wolff-Parkinson-White pattern, or WPW, is a type of heart arrhythmia caused by an accessory pathway, or an extra electrical conduction pathway, connecting the atria and ventricles, or the upper and lower chambers of the heart.
Normally, an electrical signal starts at the sinoatrial node, or SA node, in the right atrium. It then propagates out through both atria, including bachmann’s bundle in the left atrium, and contracts both atria. Then, it’s delayed just a little bit as it goes through the atrioventricular node, or AV node, before it passes through the Bundle of His and to the Purkinje fibers of the left and right ventricles, causing them to contract as well.
On an electrocardiogram, the P-wave corresponds to atrial contraction, the PR interval corresponds to the slight delay through the AV node, and the QRS complex corresponds to ventricular contraction.
Now, in a normal electrical conduction system, the AV node is the only place where the signal can get through to the ventricles from the atria. It’s kind of like there’s a gatekeeper that has to stop the signal and make sure everything’s good before letting it pass, so there’s always a slight delay here. People with WPW essentially have a secret, backdoor entrance. Because this entrance is secret, it doesn’t have a gatekeeper; therefore, there’s no delay as the signal moves through it. This secret backdoor entrance is a tiny bundle of cardiac tissue that conducts electrical signals really well, called the Bundle of Kent. Using the Bundle of Kent means the ventricles start to contract a little bit early, which is called pre-excitation. If the Bundle is on the left side of the heart, it’s called “type A pre-excitation.” If it’s on the right side, it’s called “type B pre-excitation.” Type A, on the left side, is a lot more common.
All right, even though one signal sneaks through early, the other signal waiting at the AV node eventually makes its way through, and the two signals essentially combine to contract the ventricles. So, on an ECG, people with WPW have a short PR interval with a delta wave, as well as QRS prolongation, which makes sense because the signal’s taking the shortcut and contracting the ventricles early. This means the PR interval is shorter, and the overall QRS complex is longer. People with WPW usually have a PR interval less than 120 ms and a QRS complex greater than 110 ms. Also, the ST segment and T wave, which represent repolarization, will often be directly opposite the QRS complex. This WPW pattern doesn’t typically cause any symptoms and is relatively benign.
However, in some cases, this pattern can facilitate certain arrhythmias, make certain arrhythmias more severe, and potentially even cause sudden cardiac death. When this happens, it’s called Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome. For example, people with atrial arrhythmias might have atrial rates in the 200 to 300 beats per minute range. Normally, the AV node doesn’t allow all of these signals through, and so the ventricles will contract at a lower number; for example, for every three atrial beats, there’s only one ventricular beat, so for 300 beats per minute in the atrium, the ventricle would go for 100 beats per minute.