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Atrial Flutter

Symptoms and causes

What are the symptoms of atrial flutter?

Below is a list of some of the more common symptoms people may feel when in atrial flutter:

  • palpitations or fluttering in the chest
  • feel dizzy or light-headed
  • have chest discomfort or pain
  • become short of breath
  • have no energy
  • may faint or pass out briefly (rare)

Some people have no symptoms.

What causes atrial flutter?

Atrial flutter is more common in people with health conditions that have caused changes in the electrical system in their heart like:

  • high blood pressure
  • a history of a heart attack
  • a history of heart valve disease
  • coronary artery disease
  • lung disease
  • thyroid problems

However, atrial flutter can also happen without any of these or other health issues. When there are no underlying health issues, it’s called primary atrial flutter.

Atrial flutter is seen more often as we get older. It’s rare in children and young adults.

For many people there isn’t anything obvious that will trigger an episode of AF. For others, triggers can be:

  • caffeine
  • nicotine
  • alcohol
  • feeling tired
  • indigestion
  • emotional stress
  • not getting enough sleep

Two other heart arrhythmias are closely related to atrial flutter (atrial tachycardia and atrial fibrillation). Some people can have two or all three of these arrhythmias at different times.

Can atrial flutter hurt me?

This rhythm is rarely dangerous, although it can make you feel unwell. The most serious complication is a blood clot (thrombus) forming in your heart if the flutter goes on for long periods of time.

A blood clot can form inside the atria because, at a fast heart rate such as 300 bpm, the blood isn’t emptying well from these chambers. The blood then pools in the chamber and may clot.

If this clot, or a part of it, breaks off and travels in your bloodstream, it may travel to your brain and cause a stroke (which can cause brain cells to die resulting in brain damage), to your lungs and cause a pulmonary clot, or it can block the blood flow to other body organs.

Also, if your heart is allowed to beat at more than 100 bpm for weeks or months, the heart muscle may become enlarged and/or weakened. This is not always a permanent problem. It may reverse itself once the heart rate returns back to normal.

Current as of: December 2, 2020

Author: Cardiovascular Health and Stroke, SCN, Alberta Health Services