Atrial Fibrillation and Flutter

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Atrial Fibrillation and Flutter


Atrial fibrillation and flutter are abnormal heart rhythms in which the atria, or upper chambers of the heart, are out of sync with the ventricles, or lower chambers of the heart. In atrial fibrillation, the atria "quiver" chaotically and the ventricles beat irregularly. In atrial flutter, the atria beat regularly and faster than the ventricles.


Atrial fibrillation and flutter are two types of cardiac arrhythmias, irregularities in the heart's rhythm. Nearly 2 million Americans have atrial fibrillation, according to the American Heart Association. It is the most common chronic arrhythmia. Atrial flutter is less common, but both of these arrhythmias can cause a blood clot to form in the heart. This can lead to a stroke or a blockage carried by the blood flow (an embolism ) anywhere in the body's arteries. Atrial fibrillation is responsible for about 15% of strokes.

The atria are the heart's two small upper chambers. In atrial fibrillation, the heart beat is completely irregular. The atrial muscles contract very quickly and irregularly; the ventricles, the heart's two large lower chambers, beat irregularly but not as fast as the atria. When the atria fibrillate, blood that is not completely pumped out can pool and form a clot. In atrial flutter, the heart beat is usually very fast but steady. The atria beat faster than the ventricles.

Atrial fibrillation often occurs in people with various types of heart disease. Atrial fibrillation may also result from an inflammation of the heart's covering (pericarditis ), chest trauma or surgery, pulmonary disease, and certain medications. Atrial fibrillation is more common in older people; about 10% of people over the age of 75 have it. Atrial flutter and fibrillation usually occur in people with hypertensive or coronary heart disease and other types of heart disorders.

Causes and symptoms

In most cases, the cause of atrial fibrillation and flutter can be found, but often it cannot. Causes of these heart beat abnormalities include:

  • many types of heart disease
  • stress and anxiety
  • caffeine
  • alcohol
  • tobacco
  • diet pills
  • some prescription and over-the-counter medications
  • open heart surgery

Symptoms, when present, include:

  • a fluttering feeling in the chest
  • a pulse that feels like the heart is skipping, racing, jumping, or is irregular
  • low energy
  • a faint or dizzy feeling
  • pressure or discomfort in the chest
  • shortness of breath
  • anxiety


A doctor can sometimes hear these arrhythmias using an instrument (a stethoscope) to listen to the sounds within the chest. Atrial fibrillation and flutter are usually diagnosed through electrocardiography (EKGs), an exercise stress test, a 24-hour Holter EKG monitor, or a telephone cardiac monitor. An EKG shows the heart's activity and may reveal a lack of oxygen (ischemia ). Electrodes covered with conducting jelly are placed on the patient's chest, arms, and legs. The electrodes send impulses of the heart's activity through a monitor (called an oscilloscope) to a recorder that traces the pattern of the impulses onto paper. The test takes about 10 minutes and is performed in a doctor's office. The exercise stress test measures how the heart and blood vessels respond to work when the patient is exercising on a treadmill or a stationary bike. This test is performed in a doctor's office within an exercise laboratory and takes 15-30 minutes.

In 24-hour EKG (Holter) monitoring, the patient wears a small, portable tape recorder connected to disks on his/her chest that record the heart's rhythm during normal activities. An EKG called transtelephonic monitoring identifies arrhythmias that occur infrequently. Like Holter monitoring, transtelephonic monitoring continues for days or weeks and enables patients to send the EKG via telephone to a monitoring station when an arrhythmia is felt, or to store the information in the recorder and transmit it later. Doctors can also use high-frequency sound waves (echocardiography ) to determine the structure and function of the heart. This diagnostic method is often helpful to evaluate for underlying heart disease.


Atrial fibrillation and flutter are usually treated with medications and/or electrical shock (cardioversion). In some cases, removal of a small portion of the heart (ablation), implantation of a pacemaker or a cardioverter defibrillator, or maze surgery is needed.

If the heart rate cannot be quickly controlled, electrical cardioversion may be used. Cardioversion, the electric shock to the chest wall, is usually performed emergencies. This device briefly suspends the heart's activity and allows it to return to a normal rhythm.


Arrhythmia A variation in the normal rhythm of the heart beat. Atrial fibrillation and flutter are two types of arrhythmia.

Atria The two small upper chambers of the heart that receive blood from the lungs and the body.

Stroke A brain attack caused by a sudden disruption of blood flow to the brain, in this case because of a blood clot.

Ventricles The two large lower chambers of the heart that pump blood to the lungs and to the rest of the body.

Ablation destroys the heart tissue that causes the arrhythmia. The tissue can be destroyed by catheterization or surgery. Radiofrequency catheter ablation, performed in a cardiac catheterization laboratory, can cure atrial flutter and control the heart rate in atrial fibrillation. The patient is awake but sedated. A thin tube called a catheter is inserted into a vein and is threaded into the heart. At the end of the catheter, a device maps the electrical pathways of the heart. A cardiologist, a doctor specializing in the heart, uses this map to identify the pathway(s) causing the arrhythmia, and then eliminates it (them) with bursts of high-frequency radio waves. Surgical ablation is performed in an operating room under general anesthesia. Computerized mapping techniques are combined with a cold probe to destroy arrhythmiacausing tissue. Ablation is generally successful. When ablation is used for atrial fibrillation, it is usually followed by implantation of a pacemaker as well as drug therapy.

A pacemaker is a battery-powered device about the size of a matchbox that is surgically implanted near the collarbone to regulate the heart beat. Lead wires threaded to the right side of the heart supply electrical energy to pace the atria and ventricles. The implantable cardioverter defibrillator is a treatment for serious arrhythmias. The battery-powered device senses an abnormal heart rhythm and automatically provides electrical shock(s). The shock(s) suspends heart activity and then allows the heart to initiate a normal rhythm. Wire electrodes on the device are attached to the heart. Some of the electrodes are attached to the outside of the heart and some are attached to the inside of the heart through veins. The newest implantable cardioverter defibrillators can be implanted in the chest wall and do not require open chest surgery. These devices weigh less than 10 oz and generally last seven or eight years. An implantable cardioverter defibrillator is usually used with drug therapy, but the amount medication is reduced. In maze surgery, often the last resort, surgeons create a maze of stitches (sutures) that help the heart's electrical impulses travel effectively.

Most of the drugs used for treatment have potential side effects and should be carefully monitored by a doctor. The goal of treatment is to control the rate and rhythm of the heart and to prevent the formation of blood clots. If the arrhythmia is caused by heart disease, the heart disease will also be treated. The American Heart Association recommends aggressive treatment.

A digitalis drug, most commonly digoxin, is usually prescribed to control the heart rate. Digitalis drugs slow the heart's electrical impulses, helping to restore the normal rate and rhythm. These drugs also increase the ability of the heart's muscular layer to contract and pump properly. Beta-blockers and calcium channel blockers can also be used for this purpose. Beta-blockers slow the speed of electrical impulses through the heart. Some calcium channel blockers dampen the heart's response to erratic electrical impulses.

To prevent blood clots, aspirin or warfarin (Coumadin) is administered. Warfarin, however, has potential bleeding side effects, especially in older patients. Amiodarone is fairly efffective for atrial flutter. This drug is often able to maintain the heart's proper rhythm and can also help control the heart rate when the flutter occurs.


Patients with atrial fibrillation and flutter can live a normal life for many years as long as the arrhythmia is controlled and serious blood clots are prevented.


Atrial fibrillation and flutter can sometimes be prevented when the cause can be identified and controlled. Depending on the cause, prevention could include:

  • treating the underlying heart disease
  • reducing stress and anxiety
  • reducing or stopping consumption of caffeine, alcohol, or tobacco; and/or
  • discontinuing diet pills or other medications (over-the-counter or prescription)



Kosinski, Daniel, et al. "Catheter Ablation for Atrial Flutter and Fibrillation: An Effective Alternative to Medical Therapy." Postgraduate Medicine 103, no. 1 (January 1998): 103-110.


American Heart Association. 7320 Greenville Ave. Dallas, TX 75231. (214) 373-6300.

National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. PO Box 30105, Bethesda, MD 20824-0105. (301) 251-1222.

Texas Heart Institute. Heart Information Service. PO Box 20345, Houston, TX 77225-0345.