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There are many types of abnormal heart rhythms, or arrhythmias. Symptoms range from mild to life-threatening. Atrial flutter is a common type of arrhythmia.
Atrial flutter involves the upper chambers of your heart (the atria), rather than the lower chambers (the ventricles). With atrial flutter, your atria beat more quickly than they should. This usually isn’t life-threatening, but it does make it difficult for your heart to pump blood efficiently. This can lead to a number of complications.
The atria of the heart beat normally when they receive a single electrical impulse from the sinoatrial (SA) node, a small bundle of specialized tissue that are located in the right atrium. When the electrical impulse from the SA node moves in a circular motion, the atria are stimulated to beat faster than is normal. This is known as atrial flutter.
Anyone can develop atrial flutter, but some situations put you at greater risk. If you’ve had a past heart problem, such as heart disease, high blood pressure, or congestive heart failure, you’re more likely to develop atrial flutter. If you have diabetes, lung disease, or thyroid disease, you may also be at higher risk. In addition, alcoholism or recent surgery, especially on the heart, can lead to the development of atrial flutter.
Your health care provider will likely be able to diagnose atrial flutter based on the telltale signs of your abnormal heart rhythm. Sometimes, your health care provider will need only to listen to your pulse. In most instances, your health care provider will take an electrocardiogram to confirm your diagnosis. This is a noninvasive procedure that involves attaching electrodes to different parts of your body to record your heart’s activity.
Medications are available to help control your irregular heart rate. Your health care provider may prescribe blood thinners or rate-control medications that slow down your heart rate. This will depend on the severity of your condition and your risk for complications.
A procedure called catheter ablation is another treatment option. Your doctor will feed a series of catheters (thin, flexible wires) into your body and use pulses of energy to destroy problem areas of the heart that might be causing the atrial flutter. This is a very safe procedure that can often be successful in stopping the arrhythmia.
Although atrial flutter is not life-threatening at first, it does reduce your heart’s ability to pump blood effectively. This can cause a clot to form in your heart. If the clot breaks loose, it could lead to a stroke.
Over time, atrial flutter also weakens your heart muscle and can eventually contribute to heart failure. Atrial flutter can gradually become atrial fibrillation, the most common type of arrhythmia.
You can’t directly prevent atrial flutter. However, the disease is linked to some conditions that are preventable, such as high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, and lung disease. This means that healthy lifestyle choices can help prevent atrial flutter. These include eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly, maintaining a healthy weight, and not smoking. Atrial flutter is also directly tied to alcoholism. Drink only in moderation. If you have an alcohol abuse problem, consider getting help.
Although not immediately life-threatening, complications of atrial flutter can be serious if left untreated. See your health care provider if you notice any of the possible signs and symptoms of atrial flutter.
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Bayhealth is Southern Delaware’s healthcare leader with hospitals in Dover and in Milford. Bayhealth provides a wide range of medical services, including cardiovascular, cancer, orthopaedics and rehabilitation, pediatrics, respiratory care, sleep care, surgical weight loss and women’s services.