A flutter or cough sensation in the chest is medically referred to as an atrial fibrillation, which is a type of heart rhythm disorder known as an arrhythmia. An atrial fibrillation results in poor blood flow to the rest of the body, and while the condition itself is not life-threatening, it is considered a medical emergency because it can lead to severe complications.
The heart contains a natural pacemaker called the sinoatrial, or SA, node. The SA node gives off an electrical impulse that signals the heart to contract. In normal circumstances, the heart beats in a specific order, allowing blood to flow through the body without complications. In those with an atrial fibrillation, the electrical signals are chaotic and abnormally rapid. This causes the two upper chambers of the heart to contract irregularly and too quickly, which causes a flutter sensation in the chest. When the upper chambers beat too quickly, the lower chambers cannot remain in sync with them. As a result, blood accumulates in the upper chambers of the heart, or atria, and is not pumped into the lower chambers, or ventricles.
Causes and Risk Factors
Atrial fibrillation occurs as a result of physical damage to the heart’s electrical system. This damage is often caused by coronary artery disease or high blood pressure, according to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. Other possible causes of an atrial fibrillation include congenital heart defects, abnormalities in the heart valves, lung diseases and viral infections. The risk of developing an atrial fibrillation increases with age and in those who smoke or abuse alcohol. Family history also plays a role in the risk of developing an atrial fibrillation.
In addition to a flutter or cough sensation in the chest, other symptoms of an atrial fibrillation include heart palpitations, shortness of breath, confusion, dizziness, lightheadedness, fainting and fatigue. Medline Plus notes that symptoms might begin or cease abruptly because an atrial fibrillation often starts and returns to normal on its own.
Treatment for an atrial fibrillation depends on the severity of symptoms and cause of the fibrillation. In emergency situations, electrical shock or intravenous medications might be used to restore the heart’s normal rhythm. For management of an atrial fibrillation, daily medications often are prescribed that slow irregular heartbeat and prevent the atrial fibrillation from returning. When medications are not effective or the condition has a high risk of causing serious complications, a procedure called a radiofrequency ablation might be done. During this procedure, electrical signals are sent to specific areas of the heart through electrodes to destroy the areas causing the atrial fibrillation. Most people who undergo a radiofrequency ablation will need a permanent pacemaker, according to Medline Plus.
The abnormal rhythm of atrial fibrillation can cause blood to pool in the atria and form blood clots. These blood clots can travel to the brain and block blood flow, resulting in a stroke. Uncontrolled atrial fibrillation also can weaken the heart muscles and cause heart failure.