Atrial flutter is a type of abnormal heart rhythm similar to atrial fibrillation. In patients who have atrial flutter, the heart beats fast and in a regular rhythm. However, the atria (the heart's upper chamber) beats too rapidly, causing what is heard as a flutter. Often, the heart will beat at 250 to 350 beats per minute during atrial flutter. The condition develops due to problems with the electrical activity of the heart, and it most often occurs in individuals over sixty years old. Sometimes, patients with the disorder may not experience any symptoms. When symptoms are present, they include lightheadedness, fatigue, chest pain, shortness of breath, and fainting.
Patients who deal with diabetes, obesity, and other heart problems are at an increased risk of the condition. If left untreated, atrial flutter can lead to potential strokes and heart failure. To diagnose atrial flutter, doctors perform an electrocardiogram (ECG), and patients may also wear a portable ECG monitor at home to record episodes of fluttering.
Atrial flutter and other types of abnormal heart rhythms can trigger the formation of life-threatening blood clots. Since atrial flutter does not always produce symptoms and may only occur on an occasional basis, patients may be unaware of when they are experiencing an atrial flutter episode. Doctors prescribe blood-thinning medications, known as anticoagulants, to almost all atrial flutter patients to reduce the risk of blood clots.
Patients often need to continue taking anticoagulants throughout their lives. Some of the most commonly prescribed anticoagulants include warfarin, heparin, dabigatran, and rivaroxaban. These can cause side effects, including easy bruising or bleeding and feeling cold. For patients who cannot take anticoagulants, acetylsalicylic acid is sometimes recommended.