What is Atrial Flutter?
Atrial flutter (AFL) is a condition related to atrial fibrillation, but it's an entirely separate rhythm with its own specialized therapies. AFL occurs when the upper chambers (atria) of the heart flutter at a regular and rapid rate, usually around 250-300 beats per minute. It typically generates a steady heart rate of 150 bpm, as not every “flutter” conducts down the heart’s electrical tree. This is usually a hereditary and not an acquired heart problem. The rapid rate of the top chambers (atrium), as with atrial fibrillation can cause blot clots in the heart, which is the number one cause of stroke. Also, the rapid pulse if left uncontrolled can eventually cause damage the the pumping muscle of the heart.
Is Atrial Flutter the Same as Atrial fibrillation?
Patients commonly experience both atrial fibrillation and atrial flutter, but usually only one may occur. The terms “flutter” and “fibrillation” are sometimes used interchangeably by the medical community. This experience can be somewhat confusing for a patient and highlights the importance of seeking consultation from a heart rhythm specialist.
How Does AFL Occur?
Normally electrical signals spread from the top of the heart to the bottom. The electrical signals begin in a group of cells called the sinus node or sinoatrial (SA) node, which are located in the right atrium. The signals travel from the SA node through the right and left atria, which cause the blood to pump through the ventricles. The signals then move to a group of cells called the atrioventricular (AV) node, which are located between the atria and ventricles. This signal leaves the AV node and travels to the ventricles, causing them to pump blood to the lungs and rest of the body.
During AFL, abnormal electrical signals arise from the right atrium. The signals travel in a circular motion, causing the atria to beat faster than normal. This type of rhythm is called superventricular tachycardia.
What Can Increase the Risk of AFL?
Some medical conditions that can increase the risk of AFL include:
- Previous heart attack
- High blood pressure
- Chronic lung disease
Like atrial fibrillation, AFL can sometimes cause no symptoms at all. However, some people have symptoms that are organized and predictable. These include:
- Heart palpitations
- Fast pulse
- Chest pain
- Lightheadedness and fainting
Treatment for atrial flutter is similar to atrial fibrillation. Physicians typically prescribed blood thinning medications for stroke prevention and either drugs to slow the heart rate during the flutter or prevent the arrhythmia altogether. These therapies are only suppressive. Ablation of atrial flutter, a catheter-based procedure, offers a definitive curative therapy rendering medications unnecessary. The procedure is a same-day surgery with limited recovery time.
In this video heart rhythm specialist Dr. Jeffery Banker discusses symptoms and treatment for atrial flutter.
The Heart Rhythm Specialists at Sinai Hospital routinely perform this procedure. For a consultation please call 410-601-WELL.