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Learning About Atrial Flutter

Right and left atria of heart, with example of EKG reading of atrial flutter

What is atrial flutter?

Atrial flutter is a type of heartbeat problem (arrhythmia) that usually causes a fast heart rate. This fast rate is caused by changes in the electrical system of your heart.

Normally, the heart beats in a strong, steady rhythm. In atrial flutter, a problem with the heart's electrical system causes the two upper parts of the heart (the right atrium and the left atrium) to flutter, or beat very fast. Atrial flutter might be diagnosed using an electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG). An ECG translates the heart's electrical activity into line tracings on paper.

This problem can be dangerous if it's not properly managed. If the heartbeat isn't strong and steady, blood can collect, or pool, in the atria, making it more likely to form blood clots. Clots can travel to the brain, block blood flow, and cause a stroke. Over time, atrial flutter can also lead to weakening the heart's pumping function (heart failure).

Treatment for atrial flutter helps prevent stroke and heart failure. It also helps relieve symptoms.

Atrial flutter is often caused by another heart condition, such as coronary artery disease or heart valve problems. It may happen after heart surgery.

Most people with atrial flutter are able to live full and active lives.

What are the symptoms?

Some people have symptoms when they have episodes of atrial flutter. But other people don't notice any symptoms.

If you have symptoms, you may feel:

  • A fluttering, racing, or pounding feeling in your chest (palpitations).
  • Weak or tired.
  • Dizzy or light-headed.
  • Short of breath.
  • Chest pain.

You may notice signs of atrial flutter when you check your pulse. Your pulse may seem fast.

How is atrial flutter treated?

Treatments can help you feel better and prevent future problems, especially stroke and heart failure.

The main types of treatment slow the heart rate and help prevent stroke. Your treatment will depend on the cause of your atrial flutter, your symptoms, and your risk for stroke. Treatments include:

  • Medicines to slow your heart rate. They may also help relieve your symptoms. Or you may take a medicine to try to stop the flutter from happening.
  • Blood-thinning medicines to help prevent stroke. You and your doctor can decide if you will take medicine to lower your risk.
  • Electrical cardioversion to stop atrial flutter. This short procedure involves an electric current used to shock the heart back to a normal rhythm. There’s a chance that the atrial flutter may come back.
  • Catheter ablation to stop atrial flutter. This procedure involves thin wires that are passed through a vein to the heart. These are used to destroy the areas of heart tissue that are causing atrial flutter. After a successful ablation, the atrial flutter should not come back.

How can you live well with it?

You can live well and help manage atrial flutter by having a heart-healthy lifestyle.

To have a heart-healthy lifestyle:

  • Don't smoke.
  • Eat heart-healthy foods.
  • Be active. Talk to your doctor about what type and level of exercise is safe for you.
  • Stay at a healthy weight. Lose weight if you need to.
  • Manage stress.
  • Avoid alcohol if it triggers symptoms.
  • Manage other health problems such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes.
  • Avoid getting sick from influenza (flu). Get a flu vaccine every year.
  • Talk with your healthcare provider about feelings such as worry, anxiety, or depression related to your heart condition. These feelings are normal and getting help is an important part of your overall health.

When should you call for help?

Call 911 anytime you think you may need emergency care. For example, call if:

  • You have symptoms of a stroke. These may include:
    • Sudden numbness, tingling, weakness, or loss of movement in your face, arm, or leg, especially on only one side of your body.
    • Sudden vision changes.
    • Sudden trouble speaking.
    • Sudden confusion or trouble understanding simple statements.
    • Sudden problems with walking or balance.
    • A sudden, severe headache that is different from past headaches.

Call your doctor or nurse advice line now or seek immediate medical care if:

  • You have new or increased shortness of breath.
  • You feel dizzy or light-headed, or you feel like you may faint.

Watch closely for changes in your health, and be sure to contact your doctor or nurse advice line if you have any problems.

Follow-up care is a key part of your treatment and safety. Be sure to make and go to all appointments, and call your doctor or nurse advice line (811 in most provinces and territories) if you are having problems. It's also a good idea to know your test results and keep a list of the medicines you take.

Where can you learn more?

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