What is atrial flutter?

Atrial flutter is an abnormal heart rhythm that occurs when the atria (upper chambers of the heart) beats excessively (250-300 beats per minute) and can’t pump blood effectively. 

Atrial flutter is a common arrhythmia that affects more than 200,000 people in the U.S. each year. It is similar to atrial fibrillation, but the heart rhythm is more organized with atrial flutter.

If left untreated, vital organs such as the heart and brain may not get sufficient blood and can fail, resulting in heart failure, heart attack or stroke.

Tachycardia Arrhythmia (Fast Heartbeat) Atrial Fibrillation (AFib) Bradycardia Arrhythmia (Slow Heartbeat) Wolff-Parkinson-White Syndrome

Causes of atrial flutter

Atrial flutter can be caused by a variety of heart conditions including:
  • High blood pressure
  • Cardiomyopathy
  • Coronary artery disease
  • Atherosclerosis
Other factors that can cause atrial flutter include:
  • Panic attacks
  • Strenuous physical activity
  • Caffeine, nicotine, alcohol or illegal drugs
  • Medications

Risk factors for atrial flutter

If you have any of these medical conditions, you are more likely to develop atrial flutter:
  • Heart failure
  • Previous heart attack
  • Diabetes
  • High blood pressure
  • Congenital valve disease
  • Alcoholism

Symptoms of atrial flutter

Some patients with atrial flutter do not experience symptoms. If you do experience symptoms, symptoms may include:
  • Heart palpitations
  • Shortness of breath
  • Trouble with everyday activities
  • Dizziness
  • Fainting
  • Lightheadedness

Diagnosis of atrial flutter

Atrial flutter can be diagnosed by a cardiologist. The physician will take your full medical history, perform a full medical examination and order diagnostic tests including:
  • Electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG) — to track the electrical impulses of the heart.
  • Echocardiogram — using sound waves to map the heart’s function.
  • Electrophysiology (EP) studies — an invasive procedure used to record the rhythm of the heart.

Treatments for atrial flutter

The goals of treating atrial flutter are to restore heart rhythm, prevent stroke and future arrhythmias.
Restoring the heart’s normal rhythm may be accomplished with the following treatments:
  • Anti-arrhythmia medication — to correct the rhythm of the heart.
  • Radiofrequency ablation — removal of the tissue that is causing the abnormal heart rate.
  • Defibrillation — to shock your heart back into normal rhythm.

To prevent stroke after suffering from atrial flutter, your doctor may prescribe a blood-thinning medication such as Coumadin.

To prevent future arrhythmic episodes, your doctor may prescribe long-term medications to help maintain normal heart rhythm.

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