Richard Wu, M.D. Answers Questions On: Heart Rhythm Disorders
What’s the difference between heart palpitations and cardiac arrhythmias?
Heart palpitations – a fast, slow, or irregular heartbeat or the feeling of the heart pounding – is basically a temporary symptom that can be caused by a number of different things, most of which are not dangerous.
Nearly everyone experiences palpitations occasionally, and things like physical activity or standing up quickly can cause some people to have them.
Cardiac arrhythmias are abnormal heart rhythms caused by ongoing problems with the heart’s electrical activity and pathways. A heart rhythm disorder may be diagnosed when an irregular heartbeat prevents the heart from functioning properly.
Heart palpitations can sometimes indicate an underlying heart issue. Frequent palpitations due to underlying conditions such as cardiac arrhythmias can be treated – typically with medication – to improve patients’ quality of life.
Are atrial fibrillation and atrial flutter the same thing?
No. Atrial fibrillation is a heart rhythm disorder in which the heart’s top chamber (atrium) beats in a very rapid, disorganized manner – often at more than 300 beats per minute – and usually results in an irregular pulse.
Atrial fibrillation affects about 5-10 percent of people age 65 and older. The condition causes a higher risk of stroke and heart-related mortality.
Atrial flutter is a similar cardiac arrhythmia, but it is more like a wave front of electrical activity that tends to follow a circuit and go in a circle. This allows the irregular electrical signal to travel around anatomical barriers such as heart valves and blood vessels.
Atrial flutter also differs from atrial fibrillation in that the heart can get stuck in a fixed irregular rate for days or weeks – sometimes with the top chamber beating as quickly as 300 beats per minute and the bottom chamber (ventricle) beating at around only 100 beats per minute.
Although atrial flutter can lead to heart failure if left untreated, it is often fairly easy to cure, particularly when it occurs in the right side of the heart.
What causes atrial flutter?
Atrial flutter can result from cardiac surgeries that adult patients underwent as children or adolescents.
Incisions in the heart and patches placed to close holes in the heart create scars surrounded by damaged cardiac muscle. The heart’s electrical activity is slower near damaged muscle compared to normal muscle, and the heart can develop circuits that enable the irregular electrical activity to go around those scars and damaged muscle.
In a small number of cases, atrial flutter also can be caused by previous ablations used to treat atrial fibrillation.