What is Atrial Flutter?

Atrial flutter is a heart rhythm disorder where the upper chambers, or the atria, beat too quickly. In addition to beating faster than normal overall, the upper chambers also beat faster in relationship to the ventricles, or lower chambers. 

A group of cells called the sinus node stimulates the heart to beat, and an electrical pathway flows around your heart to regulate the rhythm. This system works as the natural pacemaker in your heart. 

In atrial flutter, there is an extra path that causes a short circuit, often in the right atria. This extra path causes the upper and lower chambers to beat out of sync with each other. When this happens, the heart is unable to efficiently pump blood, which increases the risk of stroke, heart failure, and other complications.

Symptoms and risk factors

Sometimes atrial flutter produces no symptoms. For those who notice symptoms, the most common ones are heart palpitations, fatigue, shortness of breath, and dizziness.

Risk factors for atrial flutter are similar to many other heart-related conditions.

  • Age
  • Heart failure
  • Previous heart attack
  • Hypertension
  • Congenital heart disease
  • Other conditions such as hyperthyroidism, diabetes, or COPD

Treatment and prevention

In treating atrial flutter, doctors seek to correct the abnormal heart rhythm and prevent stroke, which may be caused by inefficient pumping of blood. Your doctor may prescribe a medication to slow your heartbeat, or they may try to correct the rhythm issue through one of two procedures — electrical cardioversion or catheter ablation. Electrical cardioversion involves the use of an electrical shock to disrupt the irregular heartbeat and restore a normal rhythm. Catheter ablation uses a tube inserted into the heart to destroy the tiny short circuit that causes the flutter. Blood thinning medications may also be used to reduce the risk of stroke from atrial flutter.

The best steps for preventing atrial flutter are improving your heart health and treating any conditions that increase risk for atrial flutter. Eating a healthy balanced diet, getting regular exercise, reducing alcohol intake, and quitting smoking can all help prevent atrial flutter. If you have been diagnosed with lung disease, diabetes, hyperthyroidism, or hypertension, be sure to follow your doctor’s advice to manage those conditions and protect your heart health. 

Atrial flutter versus AFib

Another common rhythm disorder you may have heard of is atrial fibrillation, or AFib. The two conditions are similar, but with AFib, the heartbeat is chaotic and irregular. In atrial flutter, the heartbeat is rapid but typically regular. Sometimes a person’s heart rhythm will even switch from one to the other. 

Patients may notice similar symptoms with atrial flutter or atrial fibrillation, but the most common method of treatment differs. In AFib, medication is often the first line of defense to reduce the risk of stroke and may be the only treatment needed for mild cases. The abnormal heartbeat seen in atrial flutter can be harder to treat with medication, so catheter ablation is used more often.  

If you think you have symptoms of atrial flutter, schedule an appointment today with one of our heart rhythm specialists at Oklahoma Heart Hospital.