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What Is Multiple Myeloma? Symptoms, Diagnosis and Treatment

Multiple myeloma is an oncologic disease; in other words, it’s a human cancer. It originates in the bone marrow which is the tissue that forms the blood cells that will later circulate throughout the body.

The bone marrow is found inside the bones of the body and, from there, originates cells that are transferred to the blood tissue. Among these cells, one variety are the plasma cells. These are the culprits of multiple myeloma by multiplying abnormally in excess.

Under normal conditions, plasma cells have the function of fighting infections. They accomplish this task through the production of substances known as antibodies. Antibodies recognize the infectious agents that are trying to make humans sick and attack them.

In multiple myeloma, as there’s an abnormal amount of plasma cells, and, in turn, there’s also an abnormal production of antibodies. This doesn’t generate greater defenses; on the contrary, it favors infections and the complications derived from them.

Risk factors for multiple myeloma

There are a number of factors that make it more likely for a person to develop multiple myeloma. Among them we can name the following:

  • Age: The older you get, the greater the chance of getting this cancer although those over sixty-five years of age are the most affected.
  • Family history: There are families with a certain predisposition to the disease. It’s not a determining factor, but having a parent or sibling with the disease increases the risk.
  • Being male: Men have a higher prevalence of this cancer than women.
  • Being of African-American descent: African-Americans are a group with a higher risk of suffering multiple myeloma than the rest of the population.


Sometimes the diagnosis of multiple myeloma is delayed because of nonspecific symptoms. However, this is a disease in which most of the signs can be confused with other diseases. If the physician doesn’t have a clear suspicion, or doesn’t detect something unusual in the complementary methods, there’s a risk of delay.

Among the most common symptoms, we can list the following:

  • Bone pain: Primarily in the bones of the trunk of the body, thorax and back.
  • Gastrointestinal changes: This includes vomiting and constipation.
  • Lack of appetite: Lack of hunger, if sustained over time, leads to weight loss.
  • Repeated infections: Weakened defenses, as already explained, favor the entry of microorganisms that generate infections. These microorganisms can produce common infections that don’t resolve quickly.

Diagnosis of multiple myeloma

The first step in diagnosing multiple myeloma is to suspect it. This is very difficult because of the non-specific symptoms of the disease. On the other hand, the results of a laboratory test requested for another reason may guide the physician’s suspicion.

The laboratory test par excellence is the search for the monoclonal antibody. This is an abnormal protein that has been named the M protein and, if it appears, it’s indicative of multiple myeloma.

The second step in the diagnostic process is the bone marrow biopsy. This involves taking a portion of the bone marrow, extracting it from inside a bone to examine that tissue under a microscope. Thus, it’s possible to closely observe the condition the plasma cells are in.

The sample taken is also usually subject to the following tests:

  • Cytogenetics: This is an analysis of the DNA of the aspirated cells.
  • Immunohistochemistry: To differentiate normal cells from abnormal ones.
  • Flow cytometry: In order to determine if the abnormal cells are from multiple myeloma or another blood cancer such as lymphoma.

Treatment for multiple myeloma

The treatment of multiple myeloma requires a multidisciplinary approach involving different specialists. The oncology team treating these patients includes hematologists and, when possible, hematologists with experience in this oncologic disease.

Radiotherapy is one of the therapeutic options. Multiple myeloma is sensitive to medical radiation, which can reduce the extent of the disease and also control the bone pain generated by the disease.

Chemotherapy is indicated in people where multiple myeloma has progressed. Unfortunately, survival rates are low in patients undergoing chemotherapy. It’s estimated that at more than five years, less than one-third of patients survive.

Lastly, a treatment that’s very effective, and that has many scientific studies to support it, is transplantation. In this case, doctors perform bone marrow autotransplantation.

In conclusion

Multiple myeloma is a serious disease. Like all cancers, it requires a timely diagnosis to improve the chances of survival. So, if you have symptoms that make you suspect it, or a family history of the disease, it’s best to consult with an expert and clear up any doubts.

In conclusion, when facing any suspicions, medical professionals can guide the diagnostic process to perform the necessary tests. If necessary, they can order the best available treatment which is continually being studied and reviewed. Remember that routine check-ups are also helpful in these types of diagnoses.

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