Symptoms like a racing heart and dizziness are common with both conditions. That can make it hard to tell them apart.
Your doctor can test you to find out which heart problem you have. And whether it’s atrial flutter or AFib, treatments can put your heart back into a normal rhythm and prevent other health issues like a stroke.
How Atrial Flutter and AFib Start
Your heart has a built-in electrical system that keeps it beating at a steady pace.
During a normal heartbeat, an electrical signal starts in your heart's upper chambers, called the atria. It makes the atria contract and push blood into your heart's lower chambers, called the ventricles. Then the signal travels down to the ventricles, which contract to push blood out to your body.
The atria and ventricles squeeze and release in a constant pattern to keep your heartbeat even and steady.
In atrial flutter, the impulses don't travel in a straight line from the top of your heart to the bottom. Instead, they move in a circle inside the upper chambers. As a result your heart beats too fast, but still in a steady rhythm.
In AFib, the electrical signals that travel through the atria are fast and disorderly, which makes them quiver instead of squeezing strongly. This causes the heart to beat too fast and in a chaotic rhythm.
Atrial flutter and AFib don't always cause symptoms. Your doctor might find you have one or the other during a test you get for another reason.
But when they do cause symptoms, they can feel very similar, such as:
- Your heart flutters or beats too fast or hard, called palpitations
- Shortness of breath
- Pain or pressure in your chest
- Trouble exercising
- Dizziness or fainting
How Doctors Diagnose Atrial Flutter and AFib
Doctors use many of the same tests to diagnose atrial flutter and AFib.
- Electrocardiogram (EKG). Your medical team places small patches on your chest to measure the electrical signals in your heart.
- Echocardiogram (echo). This test uses sound waves to make pictures of your heart. It can find problems with blood flow or damage to your heart muscle.
- Holter monitor. You wear this portable EKG for 24 hours or more to record your heart rhythms throughout the day.
- Event recorder. This is another wearable EKG, but it records your abnormal heart rhythms over weeks or months.
- Blood tests. These tests can check for other possible causes of a heart rhythm problem, such as thyroid disease.
Who Gets AFib or Atrial Flutter?
You're more likely to get the conditions if you've had:
- Heart failure
- A heart attack
- High blood pressure
- Heart valve problems
- Long-term lung disease
- Thyroid disease
- Alcohol abuse
- Another serious illness
Other problems that can lead to AFib include:
- Coronary artery disease
- Heart defects
- Inflammation of the sac around your heart (pericarditis)
- Sleep apnea
A fast heartbeat also makes the heart muscle weaker over time. This can lead to heart failure -- when your heart can't pump out enough blood to supply your body.
Although atrial flutter and AFib are similar in many ways, there are different treatments for each.
- Blood thinners such as warfarin or aspirin, to prevent blood clots
- Heart rate control drugs such as digoxin (Lanoxin); beta-blockers like metoprolol (Lopressor, Toprol); or calcium channel blockers like verapamil (Calan) or diltiazem (Cardizem)
- Heart rhythm control drugs such as amiodarone (Cordarone), disopyramide (Norpace), dofetilide (Tikosyn), flecainide acetate (Tambocor), and procainamide (Pronestyl)
If medicine doesn't work, your doctor might try a procedure like electrical cardioversion -- while you’re asleep, you'll get low-energy shocks to your heart to reset its rhythm. Or, you might need a device like a pacemaker to keep your heart on track.
Doctors can often cure atrial flutter with a procedure called ablation. It uses high-energy radio waves to burn off the tiny areas of your heart that cause the abnormal heart rhythm.
Living With AFib, Atrial Flutter, or Both
An irregular heart rhythm like AFib or atrial flutter can affect how well you can work, exercise, and do other activities. To manage these conditions, follow the treatment plan your doctor prescribes. Medicines and other therapies can help control symptoms, like shortness of breath and palpitations, and lower your odds of having a stroke or heart failure.
Exercise can also help you manage your heart rhythm. Ask your doctor what types of activities are safe for you, and how to get started in a new program.