Atrial Flutter

Atrial flutter occurs when rapidly fired signals cause the muscles in the atria, the upper chambers of the heart, to contract quickly. This causes a very fast, steady heartbeat.

The "normal" number of heartbeats per minute, called pulse rate, varies with age. The heart beats about 140 times a minute in a newborn, compared to 70 times a minute in an older child at rest. Heart rate is not constant, changing in response to many factors, such as activity, fever and fear. In atrial flutter — when the heart beats too quickly — the heart cannot fill completely with blood, preventing the body from receiving the blood volume it needs to function properly.

Atrial FlutterAtrial flutter may cause the following symptoms:

  • Chest pressure or pain
  • Fainting, also known as syncope, or near-syncope
  • Fatigue
  • Lightheadedness or dizziness
  • Palpitations, which can be skipping, fluttering or pounding in the chest
  • Shortness of breath

It is important to note that some children may not know how to describe what they are feeling during a period of atrial flutter. They may have trouble keeping up with other children or realize they are having "spells" and want to sit down and rest. Sometimes, a child does not experience any symptoms at all.

Atrial flutter may occur spontaneously with unpredictable timing. Therefore, in many cases, the condition requires specialized tests to acquire an accurate diagnosis. If your doctor suspects that your child has an arrhythmia, such as atrial flutter, he or she will order one or more of the following diagnostic tests to determine the source of your child's symptoms.

  • Electrocardiogram — An electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG) records the heart's electrical activity. Small patches called electrodes are placed on your child's chest, arms and legs, and are connected by wires to the ECG machine. The electrical impulses of your child's heart are translated into a graph or chart, enabling doctors to determine the pattern of electrical current flow in the heart and to diagnose arrhythmias.
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The treatment for your child's atrial flutter will depend on the type and severity of the condition and the results of various diagnostic tests, such as the electrophysiology (EP) study. You and your doctor will decide which treatment is right for your child.

The following treatments may be considered:

Medications

Certain anti-arrhythmic drugs change the electrical signals in the heart and help prevent irregular or rapid heart rhythms from occurring. Medication may be used to convert atrial flutter to a normal rhythm, slow down the heart rate or prevent recurrences. If medication is ineffective, the doctor may try to stop the atrial flutter with pacing or with an electrical cardioversion.

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Reviewed by health care specialists at UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital.

Related Information

UCSF Clinics & Centers

Heart Center

Arrhythmia Center
1825 Fourth St., Sixth Floor
San Francisco, CA 94158
Phone: (415) 514-2783
Fax: (415) 353-4144
Appointment information

Pediatric Heart Center Clinic at Mission Bay
1825 Fourth St., Sixth Floor
San Francisco, CA 94158
Phone: (415) 353-2008
Fax: (415) 353-4144
Appointment information

Cardiac Intensive Care Unit
1975 Fourth St., Fourth Floor
San Francisco, CA 94158
Phone: (415) 353-1955
Fax: (415) 353-9144