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Atrial flutter

Overview

Atrial flutter is a type of heartbeat problem (arrhythmia) that usually causes a fast heart rate. 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 an electrocardiogram (EKG). An EKG translates the heart’s electrical activity into line tracings on paper.

Treating atrial flutter is important for several reasons. The change in heartbeat can cause blood clots. The clots can travel from your heart to your brain and cause a stroke. A fast heartbeat can make you feel lightheaded, dizzy, and weak. And over time, it can also increase your risk for heart failure.

Atrial flutter is often the result of another heart condition, such as coronary artery disease or some other heart rhythm problems. Making changes to improve your heart health will help you stay healthy and active.

Your doctor may prescribe medicines to help slow down your heartbeat. You may also take medicine to help prevent a stroke. In some cases, a procedure called catheter ablation is done to stop atrial flutter.

  • Symptoms

    What are the symptoms of atrial flutter?

    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 lightheaded.
    • Short of breath.
    • Chest pain.

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

  • Treatment

    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. An electric current is used to shock the heart back to a normal rhythm.
    • Catheter ablation to stop atrial flutter. Thin wires are used to send energy to destroy the tiny areas of heart tissue that are causing atrial flutter.
  • When to Call

    Atrial flutter: When to call

    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 now or seek immediate medical care if:

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

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

  • Self-Care

    How can you care for an atrial flutter?

    Medicines

    • Take your medicines exactly as prescribed. Call your doctor if you think you are having a problem with your medicine. You will get more details on the specific medicines your doctor prescribes.
    • If your doctor has given you a blood thinner to prevent a stroke, be sure you get instructions about how to take your medicine safely. Blood thinners can cause serious bleeding problems.
    • Do not take any vitamins, over-the-counter drugs, or herbal products without talking to your doctor first.

    Lifestyle changes

    • Do not smoke. Smoking can increase your chance of a stroke and heart attack. If you need help quitting, talk to your doctor about stop-smoking programs and medicines. These can increase your chances of quitting for good.
    • Eat a heart-healthy diet.
    • Stay at a healthy weight. Lose weight if you need to.
    • Limit alcohol to 2 drinks a day for men and 1 drink a day for women. Too much alcohol can cause health problems.
    • Avoid colds and flu. Get a pneumococcal vaccine shot. If you have had one before, ask your doctor whether you need another dose. Get a flu shot every year. If you must be around people with colds or flu, wash your hands often.

    Activity

    • Talk to your doctor about what type and level of exercise is safe for you. Start light exercise if your doctor says it is okay. Walking is a good choice. Try for at least 30 minutes on most days of the week. You also may want to swim, bike, or do other activities.
    • When you exercise, watch for signs that your heart is working too hard. You are pushing too hard if you can’t talk while you exercise. If you become short of breath or dizzy or have chest pain, sit down and rest right away.

    How can you live well with atrial flutter?

    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 the flu. Get a flu shot every year.

    Copyrighted material adapted with permission from Healthwise, Incorporated. This information does not replace the advice of a doctor.