Atrial fibrillation, commonly known as A-Fib, is an asymmetrical and frequently very rapid arrhythmia. A-fib can lead to blood clots in the heart. This can increase the risk of heart failure, stroke, and other heart-related disorders. During A-fib, the atria beat chaotically and asymmetrically – often out of sync with the ventricle. Atrial fibrillation is caused by lung disease, heart valve problems, sleep apnea, viral infection, heart attacks, and coronary artery disease among others. It is characterized by:
- Reduced ability to exercise
- Chest pain
- Shortness of breath
Atrial flutter is caused by issues in the heart’s electrical system. It may be difficult to distinguish it from atrial fibrillation. Individuals with atrial flutter may have no manifestations, however, the disorder may increase the risk of heart failure, stroke, and other complications.
Differences Between Atrial Fibrillation and Atrial Flutter
While atrial fibrillation and atrial flutter share a lot of similarities, here are key differences between these two:
- Causes - Atrial fibrillation is caused by high blood pressure, heart disease, viral infections, and other heart-related complications. Atrial flutter, on the other hand, is due to an abnormal circuit in the upper ventricles.
- Symptoms - These two disorders tend to have similar symptoms like shortness of breath, dizziness, palpitation, or fatigue. However, the aforementioned symptoms tend to be more severe with atrial fibrillation due to rapid and irregular heartbeat.
- Rate and Rhythm - In atrial fibrillation, the upper atria beat chaotically and irregularly. In atrial flutter, the upper ventricles beat rapidly but in a regular rhythm.
- Risks - Atrial fibrillation poses a higher risk of stroke and blood clots. The risks with atrial flutter are lower.
- Prognosis - Atrial fibrillation is a progressive disease. This means that it can worsen over time. It cannot usually be cured. Atrial flutter can frequently be cured with ablation – though there is a probability of recurrence. It can also develop into atrial fibrillation.
Which Condition is More Severe?
Both of these conditions are severe, however, atrial fibrillation happens to be more severe. Here’s why:
- Atrial fibrillation is a progressive condition. It can become more severe in the long run if not treated. For atrial flutter, the symptoms may either disappear on their own or become stable – this means a reduced severity of impact.
- Due to irregular and rapid heartbeat, sometimes over 100 beats per minute, atrial fibrillation can cause serious complications, including shortness of breath, low blood pressure, and fatigue.
- Atrial fibrillation tends to cause more complications. The irregular heartbeat can cause blood to pool in the atria, resulting in clots that can travel to delicate parts of the body such as the brain, causing more damage to the already existing.
That being said, atrial fibrillation remains to be more severe compared to its counterpart – atrial flutter due to higher risks of complications, its progressive nature, and its difficulty to manage.
Treatment and Prevention
Treatment of atrial fibrillation depends upon several factors – the duration with which the condition has lasted, the underlying cause of the problem, and the symptoms. Atrial fibrillation treatment may include:
- Medications - Medications may be prescribed to return the rate of heartbeat to normal and prevent blood clots. Commonly prescribed medications include beta blockers, antiarrhythmic medications, blood thinners and calcium channel blockers.
- Cardioversion Therapy - Cardioversion can be done in two ways: drug cardioversion and electrical cardioversion. Drug cardioversion is a medication given by mouth to reset the heart’s rhythm. On the other hand, electrical cardioversion is done by sending electric shocks to the heart, attempting to reset the heart rhythm.
- Surgery or Catheter Procedure - There’s a chance that medication may fail to do the trick. If that’s the case, a doctor may call for a procedure known as ablation. This procedure either uses cryoablation or radiofrequency energy to create scars in the heart. These scars help by blocking abnormal signals, thus, restoring the normal heartbeat.
There are three main types of treatments for atrial flutter namely:
- Catheter ablation - This is a minimally invasive procedure that destroys the region of heart tissues responsible for the abnormal heart rhythm. Here, a long, flexible tube (catheter) is inserted into the blood vessel and threaded into the heart. This medication option has a high probability of eliminating atrial flutter and preventing it from recurring.
- Cardioversion - This procedure is similar to that of treating atrial fibrillation. Electric shocks are used to reset the heartbeat to a normal rhythm. The beauty is that the shocks are distributed under anesthesia – so the patients don’t have to worry about being electrocuted. This is an effective way of resetting the heartbeat to normal, however, it may only provide temporary relief.
- Medication - While medication may lay out short-term relief from symptoms, it doesn’t eliminate the underlying cause of the abnormal heart rhythm. Medications, such as calcium channel blockers or beta blockers can be used to regulate heart rhythm.