Atrial Flutter Symptoms, Causes, ECG, and Treatments

Is It Atrial Flutter or Atrial Fibrillation? How to Tell the Difference!

Atrial flutter and atrial fibrillation (AFib) are both a type of atrial tachycardia. Atrial tachycardia is a type of abnormal heart rhythm. Both diseases have common symptoms like shortness of breath, palpitations, and fatigue.

One of the distinctions between these two heart diseases are their ECG (electrocardiogram, EKG) wave patterns. Atrial flutter produces a sawtooth pattern with tracings of P waves on the ECG, and AFib produces irregular QRS waves without discernible P waves.

Atrial flutter definition and facts

  • Atrial flutter is a condition where the atria of the heart rapidly and regularly beat due to an anomaly in the heart's electrical system that usually results in a tachycardia.
  • It produces feelings like near-fainting, rapid heartbeats (palpitations), mild shortness of breath, and fatigue.
  • This type of arrhythmia can be dangerous because complications can easily develop.
  • Atrial fibrillation lasts for variable periods ranging from intermittent short time periods to constant rapid heartbeats.
  • Atrial flutter and atrial fibrillation (AFib) are closely related. Flutter produces regular tachycardia while fibrillation produces irregular tachycardia.
  • Certain triggers may cause the arrhythmia; however, the triggers result in a reentry loop that causes the heart's electrical system to produce rapid, regular atrial contractions.
  • Risks for getting this heart condition include a number of medical problems and poor personal habits such as an unhealthy eating habits and drinking too much alcohol.
  • Atrial flutter is not the same as a stroke or a heart attack.
  • Although there are many tests to evaluate the atrial fibrillation, the most common diagnostic test is an electrocardiogram (ECG/EKG).
  • Antidysrhythmics, beta-blockers, and anticoagulants are the three general types of drugs used to treat and manage this type of heart disease.
  • Medical procedures to treat and manage flutter may include Valsalva procedures, cardioversion, cardiac ablation and medication for the prevention of clot formation.
  • Doctors that treat the disease may include primary care physicians, emergency medicine, cardiologists and electrophysiologists.
  • Your risk of developing atrial flutter can be reduced by avoiding drinking excessive alcohol, eating a healthy diet, and appropriate care of any medical condition.
  • The prognosis for patients with atrial flutter that get ablation treatment is excellent. Those who have additional medical problems and respond to treatments poorly have a worse prognosis and likely a shorter lifespan.

What is atrial flutter (ECG)?

Atrial flutter is a health condition (arrhythmia) where the atria of the heart as an electrical problem (a re-entry loop) that causes the atria to beat at a rapid rate of about 242 - 360 beats per minute (bpm). It is the second most common tachyarrhythmia, with atrial fibrillation (AFib) being the most common. Although usually flutter waves are regular and appear as "sawtooth" P waves in ECG's (typical atrial flutter); occasionally electrical conduction blocks can occur and produce 2:1, 3:1 or 4:1 waves or even appear as irregular bpm's resembling an irregular arrhythmia. Infrequently, atrial flutter may be seen with bradycardia (an abnormal heart rhythm that is slow) when the heart ventricles do not receive most of the atrial flutter P waves and thus do not mimic the atrial rate.

ECG (Electrocardiogram, EKG) of Sawtooth ECG Pattern of Atrial Flutter
ECG  Strip (Electrocardiogram, EKG) of Sawtooth Pattern of Atrial Flutter

What does atrial flutter feel like (symptoms)?

Although a few people have no symptoms, common clinical symptoms of this arrhythmia are as follows:

  1. Palpitations (feeling of heart beating or pounding)
  2. Fatigue
  3. Shortness of breath (usually mild)
  4. Pre-syncope (feeling like you going to faint)
  5. Lightheadedness
  6. Blurry vision

Less common but more serious symptoms of this flutter arrhythmia include chest pain, more severe shortness of breath, and fainting. These symptoms suggest that your health is being compromised.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 3/28/2017

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