Atrial flutter (AFL) is the most common abnormal heart rhythm, similar to atrial fibrillation. Both conditions are types of supraventricular tachycardia (rapid heart beat). In AFL, the upper chambers (atria) of the heart beat too fast, which results in atrial muscle contractions that are faster than and out of sync with the lower chambers (ventricles).

Electrical impulses travel along a pathway in the heart and make the upper and lower chambers of the heart work together and uniformly to pump blood through the heart.


The electrical signal that causes AFL circulates in an organized, predictable pattern. This means that people with AFL usually continue to have a steady heartbeat, even though it is faster than normal. It is possible that people with AFL may feel no symptoms at all. Others do experience symptoms, which may include:

  • Heart palpitations (feeling like the heart is racing, pounding, or fluttering),
  • Fast, steady pulse,
  • Shortness of breath,
  • Trouble with everyday exercises or activities,
  • Pain, pressure, tightness, or discomfort in the chest,
  • Dizziness, lightheadedness, or fainting.


A normal heartbeat begins as a single electrical impulse that comes from the sinoatrial (SA) node. The impulse sends out an electrical pulse that causes the atria to contract and move blood into the lower ventricles. The electrical current passes through the atrioventricular (AV) node, causing the ventricles to squeeze and release in a steady, rhythmic sequence. As the chambers squeeze and release, they draw blood into the heart and push it back out to the rest of the body. This is what causes the pulse we feel on our wrist or neck.

In atrial flutter the upper chambers (atria) of the heart beat too fast, which results in atrial muscle contractions that are faster and out of syncronization with the lower chambers.

Risk factors

Some medical conditions increase the risk for developing AFL. These medical conditions include:

  • Heart failure,
  • Previous heart attack,
  • Valve abnormalities or congenital defects,
  • High blood pressure,
  • Recent surgery,
  • Thyroid dysfunction,
  • Alcoholism (especially binge drinking),
  • Chronic lung disease,
  • Acute (serious) illness,
  • Diabetes.


AFL itself is not life threatening. But if left untreated, the side effects of AFL can be potentially life threatening. AFL makes it harder for the heart to pump blood effectively. With the blood moving more slowly, it is more likely to form clots. If the clot is pumped out of the heart, it could travel to the brain and lead to a stroke or heart attack.

Without treatment, AFL can also cause another type of arrhythmia called atrial fibrillation.


Living a heart-healthy lifestyle can reduce the risk of heart disease, so:

  • Avoide smoking,
  • Eat a heart-healthy diet,
  • Increase the physical activity,
  • Keep a healthy weight,
  • Limit or avoidi caffeine and alcohol,
  • Use medications with caution, as some cold and cough medications contain stimulants that may trigger a rapid heartbeat,
  • Reduce stress, as intense stress and anger can cause heart rhythm problems,
  • Moisturize the skin at least twice a day.