Are atrial fibrillation and atrial flutter the same?

Jeffrey F. Bleakley, MD
Cardiology (Cardiovascular Disease)
Atrial fibrillation and atrial flutter are connected but there are differences when it comes to potential treatments. Watch this video with Jeffrey F. Bleakley, MD from Parkland Medical Center to learn more.
Ankit D. Parikh, MD
Cardiology (Cardiovascular Disease)
In this video, cardiologist Ankit Parikh, MD from Northside Hospital explains the important differences between these two types of abnormal heart rhythms.
Theodore Chow, MD
Cardiology (Cardiovascular Disease)
Atrial fibrillation and atrial flutter are different arrhythmias but occur in the same area. Watch Theodore Chow, MD, of Regional Medical Center, discuss their differences.
Saumil R. Shah, MD
Cardiology (Cardiovascular Disease)
Atrial fibrillation and atrial flutter are similar. Atrial fibrillation is characterized by disorganized electrical chaos in the atria, the top chambers of the heart. Atrial flutter is an organized rhythm where the top chambers beat at an organized but very rapid rate. The top chambers frequently beat at 300 beats per minute (bpm), making the bottom chambers beat faster too, at 100 to 150bpm. Treatment options for both are similar due to the increased risk of stroke with both rhythms. However, procedure targets are different with catheter ablation. Typical atrial flutter can be approached easily from the right side of the heart, allowing for a shorter procedure with lower risk of complications. There is also an overlap between the two arrhythmias as about 20 to 40 percent of patients with typical atrial flutter will develop atrial fibrillation.
Robert C. Sheppard, MD
Cardiology (Cardiovascular Disease)
Atrial flutter is one short circuit in the heart's electrical system, while atrial fibrillation is multiple short circuits. Watch Robert Sheppard, MD, with Northside Hospital, talk about how an atrial flutter can lead to atrial fibrillation.
Atrial fibrillation and atrial flutter are not the same thing. While they are both cardiac arrhythmias, they do not cause the heart to act dysfunctionally in the same way. With atrial fibrillation, the atria (upper portions) of the heart are beating irregularly; the heart can beat at a normal rate or it can beat too fast. Atrial flutter also causes the atria of the heart to beat too fast, but it does so regularly. Often, atrial flutter will become atrial fibrillation. 
Charles H. Machell, MD
Clinical Cardiac Electrophysiology
Atrial fibrillation and flutter are not the same thing and occur in different portions of the heart, says Charles Machell, MD, with Methodist Texsan Hospital. In this video, he explains the physical differences between the two.
Ronald L. Walsh, DO
Cardiology (Cardiovascular Disease)
Although atrial fibrillation and atrial flutter are both fast heart rhythms, they are not the same thing. In this video, Ronald Walsh, DO, of Largo Medical Center, explains how the treatments for atrial fibrillation and atrial flutter differ. 
Anthony L. Komaroff, MD
Internal Medicine
Atrial flutter and atrial fibrillation are abnormal rhythms involving the upper chambers of the heart (the atria). As such, they're both classified as supraventricular arrhythmias. Both cause the atria to beat far faster than they should. The big differences are in their causes and patterns.

Atrial fibrillation is usually caused by a barrage of uncoordinated electrical signals that trigger cells in the atria to contract independently of one another. The atria themselves don't actually contract because the individual heart muscles aren't synchronized. The result is a fast and irregular rhythm. Atrial flutter, in contrast, is a fast and regular rhythm caused by a small, tight circle of electrical activity. Every time the wave of excitement goes around the loop, the atria contract. The term "atrial flutter" comes from the fact that when it is occurring, the edges of the atria look like the flapping wings of a bird.

Although some people have one or the other, many people have episodes of atrial flutter and stretches of atrial fibrillation.

In addition to making the atria beat faster than normal, both conditions cause the heart's lower chambers (the ventricles) to beat faster, too, sometimes up to 175 beats per minute. This can cause symptoms such as lightheadedness, breathlessness, fatigue, and low blood pressure. Some of the same medications and procedures are used to treat both.

In the past, doctors thought that atrial flutter was less likely than atrial fibrillation to cause a stroke, but research indicates that atrial flutter also boosts the chances of having a stroke. As with atrial fibrillation, the decision to start warfarin or other stroke-preventing medication is based on an individual's overall stroke risk.

Atrial flutter and atrial fibrillation are similar, and they share many of the same symptoms and risk factors, but they are not the same thing. In cases of atrial flutter, the pulse is likely to be quickened but regular; a person with atrial fibrillation, on the other hand, will have an irregular, quickened pulse. It is possible for one of these conditions to develop into the other.

Continue Learning about Arrhythmia

Arrhythmia

Arrhythmia

A type of heart disease, arrhythmia causes our hearts to beat too fast, too slow or with an irregular rhythm. Even though there are more than a dozen forms of arrhythmia, only a handful of reasons typically cause them. A common ca...

use is coronary artery disease, the most common type of heart disease that affects adults. An injury from a heart attack and changes in your heart muscle can also cause an arrhythmia.
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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.