There are many types of abnormal heart rhythms, or arrhythmias. Symptoms range from mild to life-threatening. Atrial flutter is a common type of arrhythmia.
Atrial flutter involves the upper chambers of your heart (the atria), rather than the lower chambers (the ventricles). 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 efficiently. This can lead to a number of complications.
Sometime, if you have atrial flutter, you will not feel any symptoms whatsoever. However, it’s possible to experience:
A noticeable fast, steady pulse
Shortness of breath
Lightheadedness or fainting
Difficulty with normal activities or exercise
A feeling that your heart is pounding or fluttering (commonly known as heart palpitations)
Tightness, pain, or pressure in your chest
Who’s at risk
Anyone can develop atrial flutter, but some situations put you at greater risk. If you’ve had a past heart problem, such as heart disease, high blood pressure, or congestive heart failure, you’re more likely to develop atrial flutter. If you have diabetes, lung disease, or thyroid disease, you may also be at higher risk. In addition, alcoholism or recent surgery, especially on the heart, can lead to the development of atrial flutter.
Your doctor will likely be able to diagnose atrial flutter based on the telltale signs of your abnormal heart rhythm. Sometimes, your doctor will need only to listen to your pulse. In most instances, your doctor will take an electrocardiogram to confirm your diagnosis. This is a noninvasive procedure that involves attaching electrodes to different parts of your body to record your heart’s activity.
Medications are available to help control your irregular heart rate. Your doctor may prescribe blood thinners or rate-control medications that slow down your heart rate. This will depend on the severity of your condition and your risk for complications.
A procedure called catheter ablation is another treatment option. Your doctor will feed a series of catheters (thin, flexible wires) into your body and use pulses of energy to destroy problem areas of the heart that might be causing the atrial flutter. This is a very safe procedure that can often be successful in stopping the arrhythmia.
Although atrial flutter is not life-threatening at first, it does reduce your heart’s ability to pump blood effectively. This can cause a clot to form in your heart. If the clot breaks loose, it could lead to a stroke.
Over time, atrial flutter also weakens your heart muscle and can eventually contribute to heart failure. Atrial flutter can gradually become atrial fibrillation, the most common type of arrhythmia.
You can’t directly prevent atrial flutter. However, the disease is linked to some conditions that are preventable, such as high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, and lung disease. This means that healthy lifestyle choices can help prevent atrial flutter. These include eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly, maintaining a healthy weight, and not smoking. Atrial flutter is also directly tied to alcoholism. Drink only in moderation. If you have an alcohol abuse problem, consider getting help.
When to call the doctor
Although not immediately life-threatening, complications of atrial flutter can be serious if left untreated. See your doctor if you notice any of the possible signs and symptoms of atrial flutter.
- Fraser, Marianne, MSN, RN
- Sohrabi, Farrokh, MD