Arrhythmia is the technical term for heart rhythm disorders. There are different conditions which can describe irregular heart rhythms. You may be familiar with atrial fibrillation which is when your heart beats irregularly, either quickly, slowly, or a mix of both.
Another type of arrhythmia is known as atrial flutter and although you may not be as familiar with it, it is similar to atrial fibrillation but less chaotic and abnormal then atrial fibrillation.
Atrial flutter may be asymptomatic which is problematic because a person with atrial flutter is still at a higher risk for stroke. It’s important that atrial flutter is diagnosed and treated in order to reduce the risk of stroke or other complications.
Below you will read up on the causes, symptoms, diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of atrial flutter.
Prevalence of atrial flutter
As mentioned, you may not have heard of atrial flutter because it is less common than atrial fibrillation. Atrial flutter most commonly affects seniors. There are roughly 200,000 new cases of atrial flutter each year. In comparison to atrial fibrillation cases between 1985 and 1990, 77 percent of arrhythmia patients had atrial fibrillation and only 10 percent had atrial flutter.
What are the causes and risk factors of atrial flutter?
Our hearts are controlled by a natural pacemaker that ensures our hearts beat in a synchronized rhythm. This natural pacemaker is located in the right atrium of the heart. It sends out signals to both the right and left side of the heart and those signals tell the heart when and how to contract. In atrial flutters, these signals are sent out but the signal is looped in the right atrium, which causes it to beat rapidly. A normal heart rhythm is between 60 to 100 beats per minute. Individuals with atrial flutter have 200 to 300 beats per minute.
There are several causes of atrial flutter including coronary artery disease and open-heart surgery as it may disrupt the electrical signals.
Individuals at highest risk for atrial flutter include smokers, those with heart disease, heart attack, high blood pressure, heart valve conditions, lung disease, stress or anxiety, people who take diet pills or certain medications, alcoholics, those who underwent recent surgery, and diabetics.
There are certain conditions associated with a higher risk of atrial flutter and they include hypoxia, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), hyperthyroidism, electrolyte imbalance, obesity, digitalis toxicity, and myotonic dystrophy in childhood.
What are the symptoms of atrial flutter?
As mentioned, patients with atrial flutter may not experience any symptoms. However, reported symptoms include heart palpitations, fatigue, shortness of breath, feeling as if you are going to faint, lightheadedness, and blurry vision.
Some less common symptoms include chest pain, severe shortness of breath, and fainting. These symptoms suggest a more serious complication relating to atrial flutter and medical attention is required immediately.
Should you be worried about atrial flutter?
If not treated or well managed, atrial flutter has the potential to be quite dangerous. Atrial flutter can contribute to complications including tachycardia, which is an increase in heartbeat that can affect blood flow contributing to organ failure, low blood pressure, thromboembolism, stroke, cardiomyopathy, and chronic atrial fibrillation.
Duration of atrial flutter can vary. Some people may experience episodes for about a week, while others may experience it constantly for a months’ time. Some individuals may have flutters lasting less than a day. In some cases, atrial flutter may develop into atrial fibrillation.
How to diagnose atrial flutter
Your doctor can diagnose atrial flutter through several different diagnostic methods including:
- Vagal maneuvers
- Adenosine – this is a drug that blocks the AV node
- Exercise testing
- Holter monitor – a monitor worn that tracks your heart rhythm
Your doctor will also review your current health, family health, and symptoms to properly diagnose atrial flutter.
What are the treatment options for atrial flutter?
The goal of treatment for atrial flutter is to restore the hearts rhythm back to normal. This can be done several different ways including prescribing medication such as beta-blockers, calcium channel blockers, and blood thinners, surgery to implement a pacemaker to control your heartbeat, and in some cases, defibrillation.
In some cases, even while being treated, atrial flutter may return. This is dependent on the cause. In order to lower your risk of reoccurring atrial flutter, you will want to utilize prevention methods.
Prevention and prognosis of atrial flutter
First and foremost, it’s important that you reduce the risk factors that contribute to atrial flutter. These include regular exercise to reduce weight, eating a heart-healthy diet, avoiding drinking too much alcohol and caffeine, not smoking, and reducing stress and anxiety.
If you have an underlying medical condition that contributes to atrial flutter, you will want to ensure you are receiving treatment for it.
Prognosis for a patient with atrial flutter is generally good as long as the patient is taking control of their
health. They should be utilizing prevention methods and adhering to their treatment plan. There isn’t much data available on life expectancy for patients with atrial flutter, but by examining lifespan of patients with atrial fibrillation – which is similar to atrial flutter – life expectancy is generally shorter. This doesn’t mean that patients can’t have a long life, but it just requires proper management.