Atrial fibrillation or flutter is a common type of abnormal heartbeat. The heart rhythm is fast and irregular in this condition.
When working well, the four chambers of the heart contract (squeeze) in an organized way.
The electrical signal that tells your heart to contract begins in an area called the sinoatrial node (also called the sinus node or SA node). These signals help your heart pump the right amount of blood for your body's needs.
In atrial fibrillation, the electrical impulse of the heart is not regular.
In atrial flutter, the ventricles (lower heart chambers) may beat very rapidly, but in a regular pattern.
These problems can affect both men and women. They become more common with increasing age.
Common causes of atrial fibrillation include:
You may not be aware that your heart is not beating in a normal pattern.
Symptoms may start or stop suddenly. This is because atrial fibrillation may stop or start on its own.
Symptoms may include:
The health care provider may hear a fast heartbeat while listening to your heart with a stethoscope. Your pulse may feel fast, uneven, or both.
The normal heart rate is 60 - 100. In atrial fibrillation/flutter the heart rate may be 100 - 175. Blood pressure may be normal or low.
An ECG (a test that records the electrical activity of the heart) may show atrial fibrillation or atrial flutter.
If your abnormal heart rhythm comes and goes, you may need to wear a special monitor to diagnose the problem. The monitor records the heart's rhythms over a period of time.
Tests to find heart disease may include:
Cardioversion treatment is used to get the heart back into a normal rhythm right away. There are two options for treatment:
These treatments may be done as an emergency, or planned ahead of time.
Daily medicines taken by mouth are used to:
Blood thinners are medicines that are used to reduce the risk of developing a blood clot that travels in the body (such as a stroke). They include heparin, warfarin (Coumadin), apixaban (Eliquis), rivaroxaban (Xarelto), and dabigatran (Pradaxa).
These drugs increase the chance of bleeding, so not everyone can use them. Antiplatelet drugs such as aspirin or clopidogrel may also be prescribed. Your doctor will consider your age and other medical problems when deciding which drugs are best.
A procedure called radiofrequency ablation can be used to scar areas in your heart where the heart rhythm problems are triggered. This can prevent the abnormal electrical signals that cause atrial fibrillation from moving through the heart. You may need a heart pacemaker after this procedure.
All people with atrial fibrillation will need to learn how to manage this condition at home.
Treatment can often control this disorder. Many people with atrial fibrillation do very well.
Atrial fibrillation tends to return and get worse. It may come back even with treatment.
Clots that break off and travel to the brain can cause a stroke.
Call your health care provider if you have symptoms of atrial fibrillation or flutter.
Talk to your health care provider about steps to treat conditions that cause atrial fibrillation/flutter. Avoid binge drinking.
Reviewed By: Michael A. Chen, MD, PhD, Associate Professor of Medicine, Division of Cardiology, Harborview Medical Center, University of Washington Medical School, Seattle, WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.