Common Symptoms of Multiple Myeloma
Multiple myeloma is a type of blood cancer that develops in the plasma cells in the bone marrow and thus causes symptoms affecting blood and bone such as weakened bones and low blood count.
Plasma cells are a kind of white blood cell. Under normal conditions, they make antibodies that help the body’s immune system. When they turn cancerous, however, they start making abnormal antibodies called M proteins that do nothing beneficial. As the disease progresses, the M proteins crowd out the healthy antibodies and the patient eventually starts developing symptoms of multiple myeloma.
Types of Multiple Myeloma
There are three kinds of multiple myeloma: symptomatic myeloma, asymptomatic myeloma and monoclonal gammopathy of undetermined significance (MGUS).
MGUS is a benign condition that can eventually become multiple myeloma. The patient does have an abnormally high number of M proteins, but they have no symptoms or tumors. About 16 percent of patients with MGUS develop multiple myeloma or some other malignant disorder of the plasma cells. MGUS is most common in people over 70 years old.
In asymptomatic multiple myeloma, the patient has increased levels of both plasma cells in the bone marrow and M proteins. They may have anemia and/or a few lesions on their bones, but they don’t suffer the frequent infections or renal failure that people with symptomatic multiple myeloma do. Asymptomatic myeloma also progresses very slowly.
Unlike people with MGUS or asymptomatic myeloma, a patient with symptomatic myeloma is plainly and visibly ill. Unfortunately, many of the symptoms of multiple myeloma, such as anemia or vomiting, occur in many other diseases, and that can make diagnosis difficult.
Symptoms of Multiple Myeloma
Symptomatic multiple myeloma produces a number of symptoms that include the following:
- Bone pain
- Changes in urination
- Increased thirst
- Nausea and vomiting
- Loss of appetite and weight loss
The cancer cells in the bone marrow eat away the solid bone and cause “osteolytic lesions” that weaken the bone and increase the risk of fractures. The lesions also cause bone pain.
The breakdown of the bones causes a condition called hypercalcemia that simply means there is too much calcium in the blood. That excess calcium will cause many of the symptoms associated with symptomatic multiple myeloma like increased thirst, changes in urination, loss of appetite followed by weight loss, confusion and restlessness.
As the disease progresses, the excessive levels of calcium of proteins overwork the kidneys and they eventually start to fail. The patient’s body is thus no longer able to rid itself of any waste or excess fluids or salts. The patient’s legs start to swell, and they feel weak and itchy.
Multiple myeloma also has a deleterious effect on the number of healthy blood cells. Not only do the cancer cells crowd out the healthy cells, but the damaged bone marrow gradually loses the ability to make new healthy blood cells. A patient with multiple myeloma will therefore develop anemia (abnormally low number of red blood cells), leukopenia (abnormally low number of white blood cells) and/or thrombocytopenia (abnormally low number of platelets).
Symptoms of anemia can include weakness, dizziness and shortness of breath. The other two conditions impair the immune system. A patient with thrombocytopenia will have slowed wound healing, and they will bleed for a longer time than a healthy person. A patient with leukopenia will be more susceptible to infections like pneumonia.
How is Multiple Myeloma Diagnosed?
One of the chief signs of multiple myeloma is a high number of M proteins in the blood. A doctor who suspects multiple myeloma will therefore start by performing blood and urine tests. They will also perform a bone marrow biopsy to look for abnormalities there.