Atrial Flutter

The familiar lub-dub rhythm of your heart is very organized. It's controlled by a built-in electrical system. But some things can cause that electrical system to go haywire. And that can cause a condition called atrial flutter.

Causes

Your heart is like two pumps that work side-by-side to move blood around your body. The right side of your heart pumps blood to your lungs to receive oxygen. The left side sends the oxygen-filled blood out to your body.

Atrial flutter begins in the atria, or the upper chambers of your heart. With atrial flutter, your atria beat more quickly than they should. This usually isn't life-threatening, but it does make it difficult for your heart to pump blood effectively. This can lead to a number of problems.

Anyone can get atrial flutter, but you are more likely to get it if you've had other health problems, such as:

  • Uncontrolled high blood pressure
  • Heart attack
  • Heart failure
  • Recent surgery
  • Diabetes
  • Lung disease
  • Thyroid problems, or
  • Alcoholism

Symptoms

You may not have any symptoms with atrial flutter. If you do have symptoms, they may include:

  • A fast but steady pulse
  • Shortness of breath
  • Dizziness
  • Lightheadedness or fainting
  • Trouble doing normal activities or exercise
  • A feeling that your heart is pounding or fluttering, and
  • Tightness, pain, or pressure in your chest

Diagnosis

Your health care provider may be able to diagnose atrial flutter by simply checking your pulse. He or she may also recommend an electrocardiogram, or EKG. This test records the electrical activity of your heart.

Treatment

Treatment for atrial flutter usually starts with lifestyle changes. These include quitting smoking, eating a heart-healthy diet, and getting regular exercise.

Atrial flutter can be controlled with medications. Your provider may prescribe two common types of medication. These are:

  • Beta-blockers or calcium channel blockers, which work to slow the electrical activity that passes through the AV node – the heart's natural pacemaker, and
  • Anticoagulants, which help to prevent a blood clot from forming in the heart. Blood clots can break loose and travel to the brain, causing a stroke.

Your provider may also try to restore your heart's normal rhythm by using a procedure called electrical cardioversion.  Cardioversion uses a short electrical shock to try to get your heart's rhythm back to normal.

If medications or cardioversion don't work, your provider may recommend other options. These may include electronic devices like a pacemaker, surgery, or other procedures to control your heart's electrical signals.

Even if atrial flutter doesn't bother you, you still need treatment to avoid problems such as heart failure or stroke. Atrial flutter can also turn into atrial fibrillation over time.

When to Call

Over time, atrial flutter can cause serious problems. Call your health care provider if you have:

  • Increased shortness of breath
  • Swelling in one or both legs
  • Unexpected weight gain
  • Chest pain or the sense that your heart is fluttering, or beating fast or har
  • Fever of 100.4ºF, or 38ºC, or higher
  • A cough with dark-colored or bloody mucus, or
  • Signs of stroke

Signs of stroke include:

  • Weakness of an arm or leg or one side of the face
  • Difficulty speaking or seeing
  • Extreme drowsiness, confusion, dizziness, or fainting

Teach your family and friends about the signs of stroke. Have them call your local emergency services or 911 right away if you are having any of these symptoms.

Things to Remember

Atrial flutter is when you have a fast, but regular heart rhythm.
You may not feel any symptoms of atrial flutter.
You still need treatment for atrial flutter, even if you don't have symptoms.

What We Have Learned

Atrial flutter can turn into atrial fibrillation over time. True or False? The answer is true. Atrial fibrillation is when your heartbeat is both fast and irregular. Atrial flutter is when you heartbeat is just fast.

You are not at risk for stroke if you have atrial flutter. True or False? The answer is false. Like atrial fibrillation, atrial flutter increases your risk for stroke.

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